International Day of the Disappeared, which falls on 30 August, is a time to reflect upon the injustice meted out to abducted individuals and their families. In South Asia, enforced disappearances have a grim history, often interwoven with civil-conflicts fuelled by ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic circumstances.
In Afghanistan, which has an extremely turbulent history, thousands of people were disappeared during several periods: from the civil war of the late 1970s, to during Taliban rule, and even after the US invasion. According to figures quoted by Human Rights Watch, as much 100,000 people across the country may have disappeared during just 20 months of the Afghan civil war. Enforced disappearances continue to date and Afghan authorities have done little to investigate these past crimes and ensure their non-recurrence.
In Bangladesh, enforced disappearances have occurred since the establishment of the Rapid Action Battalion – an anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the police – in 2004. Subsequent governments have made use of enforced disappearances to suppress political opposition and dissent. Ain o Salish Kendra reports 519 abductions from 2010 to 2017. More recently, a war on drugs lead by the ruling party and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has seen a number of human rights violations including enforced disappearances.
In India, enforced disappearances are common phenomena especially in conflict situations where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act creates conditions for impunity by the security forces. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons estimates about 8,000 to 10,000 people, mostly young boys and men, disappeared between 1989 and 2006. In the states of northeast India (where a number of separatist conflicts are ongoing) and the Green Belt (home to the Maoist-Naxalite uprisings) disappearances occur and victims are often political leaders and civil society representatives.
In Maldives, the most infamous case of enforced disappearance is that of Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist, political analyst, human rights defender and government critic who disappeared on 8 August 2014 after being abducted at knifepoint. Four years after Rilwan’s abduction, the Maldives state is seen as deliberately obstructing court proceedings and the delivery of truth, justice and accountability.
In Nepal, even though recent cases of disappearances have not been reported, there are many cases from the Maoist insurgencies, which raged on from 1996 to 2006, that remain unresolved and nearly 1400 unaccounted for. Both Maoist and government forces have been accused of carrying out enforced disappearances during the course of the armed conflict. The Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons, appointed by the Government of Nepal, has received nearly 3000 cases but has yet to resolve a single one.
In Pakistan, a grassroots movement known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement has arisen in response to excesses of the Pakistani military establishment – including the widespread use of abductions and disappearances in anti-terror operations carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Regions such as resource-rich Balochistan have also seen a high number of disappearances. Alarmingly, recent times have acts of abductions spread to major cities where civil society actors and activists have been targeted. Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has reportedly received 5,177 cases of alleged enforced disappearance since its founding in 2011, with over 1000 remaining unresolved.
Sri Lanka has the second highest number of enforced disappearances in the world after Argentina. Abductions were a government tactic that rose in popularity during the JVP insurrections of 1971 and 1989. By the height of the civil war against the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam and the five years following that, abductions were a routine tactic used to curb dissent and instil fear in the populace. Today, families of the disappeared across the formerly war-torn northern and eastern provinces have staging roadside protests for over 500 days. Despite the launch of the government-appointed Office on Missing Persons, no material progress has been seen and victims remain sceptical. A 2015 report by the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances found 12,341 cases, however the government of Sri Lanka admitted to around 65,000 missing from the JVP insurrections and civil war as of 2016.
The failure of most governments in South Asia to criminalise enforced disappearances has been one of the biggest obstacles to justice for the victims. SAHR recommends that all countries follow the example of Sri Lanka by signing and ratifying the International Convention for The Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, and draw on its legal framework to guarantee non-recurrence and the meting out of truth, justice and accountability for victim families.
Local initiatives to address the grievances of families of the disappeared, such as those in Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are commendable; however they must be guaranteed political independence and granted the necessary powers and funds to carry out their task. Victim communities and the civil society actors that have supported them must be consulted. Without such grassroots consultation, local mechanisms to address enforced disappearances are unlikely to be effective or gain popular support.
SAHR unequivocally condemns the use of enforced disappearance, which is a tactic of state-sanctioned terror to quell political dissent. In many cases, official numbers of the disappeared should be viewed as conservative estimates, as many more cases go unreported or unacknowledged. Furthermore, though the immediate targets of enforced disappearances are often political actors (such as activists or journalists), the reality is that enforced disappearances are employed indiscriminately to instil fear and mistrust in a civilian populace. The victims of such violence are not just the disappeared but the dozens of friends and family members left in the wake without answers.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights: