In late August, Pakistani publisher and human rights activist Faheem Baloch was detained by unidentified plain-clothes law enforcement officers in his Karachi bookshop and ushered away. A native of the Balochistan region of Pakistan, the publisher is known to be a dedicated cultural advocate, heading up a publishing house specializing in Balochi literature, and serving as chief editor for Balochi cultural-literary site Sada-e-Balochistan. According to witnesses, when the officers stormed Faheem Baloch’s bookshop, they asked whether he had sent books to Germany, and then informed him that their superior wanted to meet him. They escorted the publisher out of his shop. Since then, like many before him who have supported the Baloch cause, Faheem Baloch’s whereabouts have remained unknown.
The practice of enforced disappearance is not a new phenomenon within Pakistan, rather it is a byproduct of the country’s history of authoritarian rule. Although it began in the 1970s, the number of cases of enforced disappearance increased significantly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. As Pakistan became a vital ally of the United States’ “war on terror,” security agencies justified the abduction of individuals on grounds of national security. The victims of enforced disappearances include political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, and students. However ethnic minorities, especially Baloch and Pashtuns are predominantly targeted.
Enforced Disappearances of the Baloch People
The State’s oppression of Balochistan dates back to 1948, when the Khan of Kalat, due to mounting pressure of possible military aggression, and having lost three-fourths of Kalat’s territory, agreed to the accession of Balochistan into West Pakistan. In April of 1948, the Pakistan military entered Balochistan with orders to quash the resistance movement from Baloch nationalists, which began this conflict that has yet to see an end.
During the 1970s after being granted limited autonomy, the National Awami League, a coalition of Baloch parties managed to make notable structural changes in furthering the cause of the Baloch people, until it was overthrown by the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This resulted in further resistance against the State, which lasted four years. Although the Government successfully suppressed the insurgency, they had failed to gain the trust of the Baloch people.
Tensions between Balochistan and the Federal government reached a new high during the early 2000s when Baloch Nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a military operation, during Pervez Musharraf’s reign. The Assassination of Bugti led to one of the most violent waves of insurgency.
In the last decade, the crackdown on Baloch journalists, students, human rights activists, and others thought to hold separatist sentiments has intensified. According to activist Imran Baloch, more than 55,000 Baloch have been abducted since Musharraf came into power. Between 2007 and 2015 alone, 29 journalists were killed in Balochistan. In April of 2020, the dead body of Sajid Hussain Baloch, editor-in-chief of Balochistan Times, was found in the Fyris River in Uppland, Sweden. Although the Swedish Police ruled out any foul play, Reporters Without Borders claimed that his death could be linked to his work.
Students, including prominent members of the Baloch Students Organisation (Azad) (BSO-Azad) –– a student organization raising awareness of Baloch rights on university campuses –– have also been targeted by security agencies. The State has routinely cracked down on its members, including Zakir Majeed, a graduate student and Vice President of the organization, who was vocal about the government’s human rights violations in Balochistan. Zakir was kidnapped and disappeared by security forces 13 years ago and remains missing to this day. Other prominent members have suffered similar fates. Zahid Baloch, then-chairman of the BSO, was abducted in 2014, and Shabbir Baloch, a student leader of the organization has been missing since 2016.
Most victims’ whereabouts remain unknown, while others are found dead on the roadside, becoming victims of Pakistan’s “kill and dump” policy. Activists have also claimed that missing persons have been killed in fake encounters manufactured by security forces. The most recent “encounter” occurred this past July when the Pakistan Army carried out a military operation in retaliation to the abduction and murder of Lieutenant Colonel Baig by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). The Inter-Services Public Relations claimed that they had killed 11 BLA members; however, these claims were categorically denied by the group, which stated that not a single fighter was harmed. The bodies were moved to the Quetta civil hospital for identification where seven of the eleven were identified as individuals who were forcefully disappeared by the State. Their families had since registered them as missing persons and had been actively protesting for their release. These killings drew the ire of the Baloch community and human rights activists alike, who held protests in Quetta demanding a thorough investigation into the incident and the holding to account of those responsible.
The Exploitation of Balochistan
The people of Balochistan have long objected to the exploitation of its natural resources. Although it is the poorest province in Pakistan, the area is rich in natural resources including gold, copper, oil, and natural gas. The gas in the province has predominantly been used to supply the other three provinces. In 1980, Quetta, the capital of Balochistan received access to its local resources for the first time. However, approximately 59 percent of the urban population of Balochistan still does not have access to gas. The fact that Balochistan’s natural resources have been exploited and utilized to run the rest of the country, whilst Balochistan itself remains greatly underdeveloped has caused great resentment within its people.
The growing influence of China in Balochistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has further exacerbated the issue. The city of Gwadar is the focal point of the project, with Pakistan and China planning to build a route to connect Gwadar port with Kashgar in Xinjiang. Despite Gwadar port being a crucial part of the project, the province’s share in CPEC is a meager 0.5 percent. Moreover, Baloch nationalists have claimed that the project has displaced around 150,000 indigenous people and destroyed their properties. Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, the chief of the Balochistan Liberation Front, has warned China to not partner with its occupier. In the eyes of the locals, CPEC is just another project which will exploit Balochistan’s resources and geopolitical significance to benefit the rest of the country at the expense of the Baloch people. Furthermore, as settlers begin to move into Balochistan, there is a fear amongst its natives that they will soon be a minority in their own land. The growing Chinese influence in the province has heightened the sense of alienation felt by those indigenous to Balochistan and has provoked insurgent groups within the province.
On the 26th of April, 2022, The Confucius Institute of Karachi University was bombed by a Baloch separatist belonging to the BLA, killing four people, including three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver. The attack was specifically aimed at the Chinese for partnering with the Federal Government to exploit Balochistan’s resources. The attack on the University was seen as an attempt to derail CEPEC and sabotage Pak-China relations.
The attack on Karachi University led to a new wave of enforced disappearances. The central spokesman for the Baloch Student Organization claimed that the government would use the suicide attack as a basis to terrorize the Baloch community. Following the attack, several students were picked up from university campuses across Pakistan, many of whom have still not returned. Countless Baloch students have also claimed that they have been subjected to harassment and racial profiling by police following the April 26th incident. Human rights organizations across Pakistan and internationally have condemned the racial profiling and enforced disappearance of Baloch students by security agencies; urging the government to release all missing persons or produce them before a court of law.
The State’s Response to Enforced Disappearance.
Enforced disappearance is defined under Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) as an “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law”.
The practice violates an individual’s constitutional right to due process and a fair trial. It further infringes upon an individual’s right to dignity, life, and liberty which is not only protected by the Constitution of Pakistan, but also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, having ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Pakistan is under an obligation to protect its citizens from arbitrary arrest or detention under Article 9. Pakistan has also ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which asserts that a State must protect all people from torture, with Article 2(2) expressly stating that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Though they are legal safeguards against torture and unlawful arrest and detention both through international and domestic laws, the act of enforced disappearance itself has not been explicitly criminalized, nor has Pakistan ratified the ICCPED. For instance, the Pakistan Penal Code does not categorically prohibit enforced disappearances, although it does criminalize abduction, kidnapping, as well as kidnapping, or abducting with the intent to secretly or wrongfully confine a person. This poses a serious issue since the offenses of kidnapping and abduction fail to cover the elements crucial to enforced disappearances, namely the fact that it is often carried out by agents of the State, or by groups acting with the support of the State. This in turn undermines the severity of enforced disappearances and makes it an inadequate legal recourse for victims and their families. The ambiguity within the law and a failure to enact legislation that implicitly criminalizes enforced disappearances have allowed the practice to continue with impunity.
In March 2011, the Federal Government attempted to address the lacuna in the law by establishing the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIOED). The Commission’s edict was to trace the whereabouts of the missing person and “fix responsibility on individuals or organizations responsible.” The Commission not only possesses the power to summon any alleged perpetrators, including State officials but may also register a criminal case against those involved.
However, since its formation, COIOED has been subject to serious criticism, with families of the disappeared claiming that the Commission has failed to locate their loved ones and to bring the perpetrators to justice, even in cases where they have been identified. In the 11 years that the Commission has been operative not a single perpetrator of enforced disappearance has been held accountable.
The Commission has also been criticized for its lack of independence. The ICPPED states that each State must ensure that any person who alleges that an individual has been subjected to enforced disappearance has the right to complain to competent and independent State authority and to have that complaint promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigated. Additionally according to the International Commission of Jurists, for a commission to be considered credible, its members must be selected through a transparent procedure.
However, the Commission of Inquiry Act delegates the power of appointment solely to the Federal Government. The lack of transparency and failure to include civil society organizations further hinders the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the Commission. Questions regarding the Commission’s biases have been raised by grassroots organizations in Pakistan, including the NGO “Defense for Human Rights” which has repeatedly claimed that the Commission is not sympathetic to the cause of recovering missing persons. The Chairperson of the Commission, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal himself has stated while briefing the National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights that the issue of enforced disappearance is exaggerated by NGOs, and claimed that they were working for foreign elements and receiving funding from abroad. Considering the comments made by Justice (retd) Iqbal, it is not surprising that the aggrieved families lack faith in the Commission.
Moreover, the Commission Regulations’ definition of enforced disappearance is not in line with international standards. It defines the crime as: “Enforced Disappearance/ Missing Person means such person as has been picked up/taken into custody by one of the law enforcement/intelligence agencies, working under the civilian or military control, in a manner which is contrary to the provision of Law.” The definition does not address the fact that secret detention or failure to mention the whereabouts of the detainee amounts to enforced disappearance. The definition does not highlight that concealing the whereabouts of the detainee or refusing to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, regardless of whether it is legal under domestic law, still amounts to enforced disappearance.
Furthermore, it does not recognize that enforced disappearances may also be carried out by non-State actors with the authorization of the State. The Commission’s vague definition has allowed the practice to continue through ‘legal’ means by successive governments. One glaring example is the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations (ACCPR) 2011. The regulation granted the government or any authorized third party extensive powers to detain people without charge or trial for an unspecified period, provided that such interment would be to secure the peace. These powers were further extended in 2019 to the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the KP Actions (in aid of civil power) Ordinance. Although these practices are inconsistent with international law, since these detentions and abductions have legal standing under domestic law, it is unlikely that such deprivation of liberty would amount to enforced disappearance in the Commission’s eyes.
This past June, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) finally acknowledged that the Commission had failed to offer redress to victims of enforced disappearances and their families. The IHC, headed by Chief Justice Athar Minallah, issued an order, which stated that if there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a case of enforced disappearance exists, then it is the duty of the State and all its organs to trace the disappeared citizen. The Chief Justice also acknowledged that the Commission has become a liability and has not provided justice to victims of enforced disappearances. The court held that each organ of the State is constitutionally obligated to hold public officials who are responsible or have failed in their duty to protect and trace missing citizens. It further stated that evidence suggests that the Commission has not attempted to hold public servants who did not comply with production orders accountable, thus failing in its duty.
Another seemingly positive development was the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2021 introduced in the National Assembly. The Bill proposed to insert a new section in the PPC which contained a definition of “enforced disappearance” in line with international law. However, a provision was later added that false allegations of enforced disappearances would be declared a penal offense punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs.500,000. The Bill was heavily criticized, with activists claiming that the new provision would further deter families of victims from coming forward with their cases. Ironically, the proposed law was never enacted because the bill itself went missing, and is yet to be found.
Seeing as almost every avenue of redress fails them, families of the disappeared and activists routinely take to the streets to protest the enforced disappearances. Their protests have been met with harassment, violence, and intimidation by police and security forces. Although they have been protesting for decades, their grievances remain the same: they yearn for the safe return of their loved ones.
Sammi Baloch, an activist whose father forcibly disappeared 13 years ago, has told various outlets that in her search for her father’s whereabouts, she has had to deal with discriminatory behavior, harassment, and intimidation by law enforcement officials while leading protests. After a protest on June 8, 2021, which marked the 12th anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Zakir Majeed Baloch, Sammi claimed that the police filed First Information Reports against 36 individuals who attended the rally. Furthermore, this past June in Karachi during a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of missing Baloch students, Sammi, and other activists were physically abused and harassed by police. Video evidence showed the police beating and dragging protestors along the road, and placing them under arrest.
The harassment and intimidation used by law enforcement against families and activists is a tool that has long been used by the State to silence the aggrieved. Instead of addressing the legitimate grievances of a marginalized community, the State either remains completely silent on the matter or resorts to using force to suppress their protests.
Since the accession of Balochistan, its land has been exploited and its people oppressed. The Balochs have been displaced, discriminated against, and persecuted by the State. When they speak out against their oppression they are met with violence and are forcibly disappeared. Following such disappearances, families and activists protest and demand the State return their loved ones, which once again results in police brutality and a new wave of disappearances.
Although successive governments have pledged to put a stop to the practice, their words have only amounted to empty promises. Pakistan has still not signed the ICCPED, nor has it passed national legislation explicitly criminalizing enforced disappearances. Although a Commission of Inquiry was created, it has proven to be inefficacious. The IHC has provided some hope in its recent decision condemning enforced disappearances and acknowledging the government’s inaction. However, whether any change will occur is questionable since the judiciary has made such condemnations previously, but to no avail.
It is high time Pakistan ends enforced disappearances. There’s currently no redress for victims of enforced disappearance and their families, and the lacuna in the law will continue to allow security agencies to act with impunity. It must ratify the ICCPED and enact legislation criminalizing enforced disappearances specifically. Furthermore, the whereabouts of all forcibly disappeared persons must be disclosed. The government must also ensure that missing persons in custody are either released or swiftly brought before a court of law and given a fair trial.
Moreover, it is not enough to simply end enforced disappearances. Balochistan has contributed greatly to the development of the country at its own expense, and its people have either experienced brute force or extreme neglect at the hands of the State. The exploitation of Balochistan must end. The Baloch people must have the right to move freely through their land, have access to their natural resources, and be able to air their grievances without fear of arbitrary arrest or abduction. It is time the government treats the people of Balochistan as citizens of this country and upholds the rights that they have been deprived of for so long.
This explainer has been published anonymously due to the risks faced by our correspondents in the region.