The Pulse

The Long History of Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan 

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

The Long History of Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan 

Baloch protesters are demanding an end to the decades-old problem of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Pakistan’s government is trying to justify the practice.

The Long History of Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan 

A camp in Quetta established by the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) advocacy group displays the photos of the missing.

Credit: Somaiyah Hafeez.

The human rights situation in Balochistan has once again come to the limelight in Pakistan. The protest camp established by the families of Baloch missing persons near the National Press Club in Islamabad has become a center of attention – both for supporters as well as violators of the rule of law and human rights. Expressions of solidarity and acts of harassment have continued side by side. 

The protesters demand an end to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. However, despite more than a month of agitation, including an 1,800-kilometer long march from Turbat near the Iranian border to the Pakistani capital, there has been little progress toward addressing the grievances of the protesting families. Their loved ones either remain “missing” – many of them for decades – or have allegedly been extrajudicially killed.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani government’s response to the problem has been characterized by neglect, apathy, and even contempt. The protesters faced obstacles from the authorities throughout their weeklong march toward the federal capital. Finally, they were welcomed by the Islamabad police with a crackdown that included the use of force, arrests, and attempts to forcibly “deport” the protesting women and children back to Balochistan. However, due to the pressure of public opinion and the subsequent intervention of the Islamabad High Court, the protesters were allowed to reach the press club.

Amnesty International expressed deep concern about the excessive use of force against the Baloch protesters and demanded an impartial investigation of all extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) strongly condemned the “violent state crackdown on Baloch citizens” protesting the alleged extrajudicial killings, and called for investigation and accountability for the “state’s widespread use of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.”

According to the HRCP, the state uses enforced disappearances as a tool to suppress dissent. In Balochistan, the practice of forced disappearances dates to the 1970s. However, since the early 2000s, enforced disappearances and alleged extrajudicial killings have become a vital tool of the state’s counterinsurgency policy in Balochistan. During these decades, the victims’ families have sometimes received sympathy but never justice. The state policy toward the problem of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has remained one of inaction, but its stance on the issue switches between denial and justification.

Pakistan’s hybrid power structure is generally characterized by a dominant security establishment and weak political governments dependent on the former for their survival. The power rivalries between the two often result in the ouster of political governments. In this complex and unstable division of powers, Balochistan remains a subject under the control of the establishment, and the civilian governments have little say in related policy matters. Usually, all the other state institutions, including the judiciary, recognize the establishment’s sole jurisdiction over the region.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, enforced disappearances have become a routine occurrence in Pakistan, and it has been accepted by the authorities as a normal practice of law enforcement agencies. The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) has registered thousands of cases of enforced disappearances in Balochistan. The official figures revealed by different governments at different times fluctuate from an absolute denial to confessing thousands of arbitrary detentions. Besides the violation of fundamental human rights of the victims themselves, thousands of such cases represent thousands of families facing unhealing pain and unending suffering, as they have been subjected to this brutal form of collective punishment.

As Pakistan is heading toward general elections, it is represented by a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar. The caretaker prime minister is believed to be a “man of the establishment” and, importantly, he is “not apologetic about it.” 

During a media talk on January 1, Kakar not only rejected the demands of the Baloch protesters but also tried to justify enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings on account of the weakness of what he called a “rotten” criminal justice system in Pakistan. An embittered Kakar criticized the intellectuals and journalists who highlight human rights violations in Balochistan, and suggested that they join the Baloch armed struggle. Importantly, the authorities have already initiated actions against people who took part in the protest in Balochistan, officially terming their activities as anti-state.

Unfortunately, the irresponsible attitude of various state functionaries has created an “us vs them” situation between Islamabad and the Baloch ethnic group. Sometimes, officials mince words to justify human rights abuses against the Baloch as the state’s response to the armed conflict in Balochistan. They also attempt to validate the unconstitutional and extrajudicial measures against the Baloch by labeling the victims as “anti-state.” Some of them present the concept of the state’s monopoly over violence as a license to kill. They do not realize how illogical and inhumane they sound when justifying human rights abuses on the pretext of their own inefficiency. What message does the state give to the citizens when it signals that it will forcibly disappear or extrajudicially kill them because it does not have the ability or evidence to prove them guilty of a crime in the courts of law?

The impunity enjoyed by the authorities in Pakistan has made them prone to extra-constitutional and extrajudicial conduct. Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings appear to them as a luxury to deal with the perceived dissidents as they please, without concern for any law, procedure, or standards of fair trial. However, those in power must realize that they are trading the credibility of the state and law – if there is any left – for their luxury and impunity. Every case of forcible disappearance and custodial killing widens the gulf between the state and the Baloch, who are already far away from each other.

Forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings are a reality in Balochistan. A generation has grown up witnessing these atrocities around them, coupled with the inaction and collusion of the institutions responsible for the protection of their fundamental human rights. This approach will further alienate the Baloch as it genuinely raises the question of how they can achieve their national rights in a system that is unwilling even to grant them fundamental human rights. The resulting grievances, resistance, repression, and mistrust will continue to run the cycle of conflict and violence. 

Islamabad must revisit its Baloch policy by ending rights violations, taking confidence-building measures, and showing readiness to genuinely address Baloch grievances, if it ever wants to resolve the Baloch question.