Of rights and sovereignty
By: Reema Omer
YOU know that something has gone terribly wrong when senior politicians and media persons condemn a visit by a UN Working Group on Enforced or Involun-tary Disappearances (WGEID) for being a conspiracy against Pakistan’s sovereignty and interference in its domestic affairs.
The concerns raised in parliament and television talk shows are based on a misconceived view of the working group’s mandate, depict a skewed understanding of the concept of sovereignty, and illustrate our insensitivity towards one of the most serious human rights crises faced by Pakistan today.
The working group’s mandate is simply to assist families to determine the fate of their ‘missing’ relatives.
It examines reports of disappearances received from relatives of disappeared persons or human rights organisations acting on their behalf, transmits individual complaints to the concerned governments, and requests them to carry out investigations and to inform the group of the results.
It is important to note that the WGEID itself is not an investigative or fact-finding body — it acts purely on humanitarian grounds as a channel of communication between the aggrieved persons and the governments.
The WGEID’s country visits are intended to further facilitate the dialogue between local authorities, the families of ‘missing persons’ and the working group, and to independently clarify reported cases of disappearances.
Based on its country visits, the WGEID prepares reports containing findings and recommendations to provide best practices to implement international human rights standards and assist governments to identify factors contributing to enforced disappearances. The reports are presented to the Human Rights Council every year.
The recommendations of the group are purely advisory — the UN or the WGEID does not have any legal sanctions at its disposal to enforce the recommendations.
In 2010, in response to a very high number of complaints of enforced disappearances received from Pakistan, the WGEID requested the Pakistan government to allow the group to visit, and after over 20 months of wait, the government finally extended the solicited invitation.
As a signatory to international human rights regimes and a member state of the UN, Pakistan has already agreed to international scrutiny over its internal affairs.
The government reports to various human rights bodies every year, and every four years under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review is obligated to respond to an assessment of its human rights obligations in the Human Rights Council.
It is therefore quite bizarre that the group’s visit has sparked controversy for being an intrusion in Pakistan’s domestic affairs and an attempt to make Pakistan — in the words of MNA Raza Hayat Hiraj — a “banana republic”.
More significantly, however, the knee-jerk reaction against the WGEID’s visit shows that the popular understanding of sovereignty in Pakistan is highly problematic.
Just before the WGEID arrived in the country, a senior journalist and TV show anchor accused Amina Janjua, chairperson of the Defence for Human Rights, of shaming Pakistan in the international community by appealing to the UN. Ms Janjua responded by saying that she and other families of missing persons had tried knocking on the doors of various domestic mechanisms for seven years, but were yet to be united with their loved ones.
The reaction to the working group’s visit is also similar to what transpired after the sub-committee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US Congress held a hearing on the human rights situation in Balochistan.
Following the congressional hearing, Baloch nationalists were called on Pakistani talk shows and accused of being traitors for involving the international community in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
At the heart of these reactions lies an extremely opportunistic understanding of the meaning of ‘sovereignty’.
It is perfectly acceptable for Pakistan to run to the IMF and World Bank with begging bowls to avoid fiscal bankruptcy and in exchange, allow them to dictate our economic policy, but our sovereignty is threatened if human rights abuses allegedly carried out by our armed forces are given international attention.
Similarly, an unsigned memorandum seeking US assistance in redressing our civil-military imbalance of power is considered treasonous, but we do not see anything wrong with the fact that the very existence of our armed forces rests on American largesse.
Invoking empty slogans of sovereignty also illustrates a growing apathy towards serious human rights abuses faced by the people of Pakistan.
The lens of ‘national sovereignty’ blurs the glaring truth that the Pakistani state has consistently failed its people: the Supreme Court has not heard the missing persons cases for some time and is yet to hold anyone accountable for the disappearance and murder of countless Pakistanis; the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has quite shockingly stated that human rights groups are exaggerating the seriousness of the matter and is blaming enforced disappearances on ‘foreign agencies’, and our government has still not been able to compile a reliable list of disappeared persons, let alone curb our intelligence agencies’ unfettered powers.
The misplaced emphasis on the need to depict Pakistan in a positive light by shielding human rights abuses from the international community instead of resolving them is troublesome, to say the least.
By pretending all is well we may be able to orchestrate a ‘positive image’ of Pakistan internationally, but this would come at the cost of isolating aggrieved groups and victims of rights abuses even further, signalling to them that protecting their loved ones and bringing perpetrators of the heinous crime of enforced disappearances is not a priority for the state.