AN air of stultifying inaction has descended over the issue of enforced disappearances, even as people continue to go ‘missing’. In fact, a three-judge Supreme Court bench hearing the missing persons’ cases admitted as much on Monday when it noted the government’s failure in locating the individuals and asked the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances to submit a report on its “perceptible progress” in the matter. According to the statement made in court by a CoIoED representative, it has disposed of 3,000 cases and 1,577 are still pending before it. The Supreme Court bench, while asserting its intention to continue hearing the cases of missing people, asked the government to consider providing a subsistence allowance to some of the affected families facing hardship on account of the misfortune that had befallen them.

Form without substance — that, more or less, defines the efforts thus far against the vile tactic of enforced disappearances. Umpteenth court hearings and multiple meetings of the commission have achieved virtually nothing, and thousands of families continue to exist in limbo, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. On the contrary, the abductions have become more brazen. From the backwaters of Fata and the provinces, and the dark of night, they are now taking place even in broad daylight in major urban centres. The increasing audacity makes the response by the government and the justice system seem doubly pathetic; that in turn further emboldens the perpetrators. First, it was suspected anti-state militants, Baloch insurgents and their sympathisers who were targeted; when the pushback was not unequivocal enough, the net expanded to include bloggers, journalists and civil society activists. Matters have come to such a pass that now, anyone, anywhere can be picked up if they express, or are suspected of harbouring, a point of view that is secular and/or questions the national security policy.

The message from the establishment, or at least some elements of it, is clear: it is above the law, even the law that underpins the state itself. Eyewitness testimony does not matter, nor does the fact that the commission has recommended — to no avail — that criminal cases be filed against 117 law-enforcement officials. There never seems to be enough evidence to actually hold anyone accountable for a gross human rights violation, the absence of which distinguishes civilised countries from those where the law of the jungle prevails. Enough is enough. It is time to throw down the gauntlet; prevarication, empty gestures and toothless inquiry commissions cannot suffice. The former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s aggressive approach — at least for a brief period — towards enforced disappearances is instructive, even though it did not have lasting results. For it proved that only when hard questions are asked of those who have the answers, will there be any hope of bringing enforced disappearances to an end.

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2018

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