An important development occurred recently, which could represent a major turning point in Pakistan’s history. For a long time, Pakistan has been criticised by civil society organisations and international bodies such as the Amnesty International, for its woeful human rights record and, importantly, for its failure to establish a national human rights commission in line with a 1993 UN Resolution which urged member states to demonstrate their commitment to human rights through the setting up of national commissions.
Recently, the impending passage of a bill established the Pakistan National Human Rights Commission (PNHRC), which has been given unprecedented powers to deal with complaints of human rights violations. Once passed, the bill will become an Act of parliament and demonstrate its fullest commitment to the cause of human rights.
Perhaps, the most important provision of the bill is the call to stop the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. I recently attended a conference of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances, bringing together groups and individuals from around the world — surviving victims, friends and family members of those who had disappeared — with many human rights organisations. For me, as an invited guest observer, the conference was an eye-opener. Sovereign states, directly or through hired agents, commit horrendous acts of abductions, torture and wanton killing, with impunity and without any accountability. It became evident that in over half of the countries of the world, disappearances, torture and inhumane treatment are standard practices. Yet, all these countries are members of the UN and are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article Five states that: “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Enforced or involuntary disappearances constitute the most abominable form of human rights violations. Worse, the victims’ relatives also suffer deep anguish, not knowing if their loved ones are alive and fear for their own safety with no legal support. In resorting to enforced disappearances, states attempt to hide their practices of torture and extra-judicial killings.
The UN has faced this problem since the mid-1970s following enforced disappearances carried out by repressive regimes in Central and South America, the Balkans, Asia and Africa. On December 20, 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. It came into force on December 23, 2010. To date, however, only 90 of the 193 UN member states have signed it and only 30 have ratified it. Conspicuously absent from the list of signatories are Canada, Russia, China and the US.
A UN committee now exists to promote wider ratification of the Convention by governments and to monitor effective implementation of its provisions. Many governments have not yet codified these provisions into their domestic legislation. This process is necessary for perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions and justice rendered through reparations to victims and their families. In the case of the US, its setting up of undeclared detention centres in other countries and secretly disappearing those it regards as enemy combatants, under the so-called ‘renditions’ policy, is misguided. The Amnesty International and the Centre for Constitutional Rights have documented 50 such disappearances to date.
As Pakistan strives to put its own national human rights commission effectively in place, it is hoped that it will demonstrate that the underpinnings of true democracy lie in the values, ideals and respect it cherishes for fundamental human rights. It is in this context that the PNHRC must re-examine the administration’s policies and practices to assess if these meet the test of the world’s scrutiny and, as a first step, strive to sign — and eventually ratify — the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. This would be an exemplary act for other governments to follow.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2012.