Global rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) has called on governments across South Asia to deliver “truth, justice, and reparations” to the families of thousands of victims who have been forcibly disappeared, some for decades.
In a statement marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance on August 30, AI revealed that tens of thousands of people remain “disappeared” in seven South Asian countries where the practice has scarred communities from Afghanistan in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.
“South Asia has a particularly gruesome record when it comes to enforced disappearances, with some governments persisting with the practice while others have failed to provide answers to those who have waited years for them,” said Biraj Patnaik, AI’s South Asia director.
He says that enforced disappearance is one of the worst human rights violations. “People are wrenched away from their loved ones by state officials or others acting on their behalf, who then deny the person is in their custody or refuse to say where they are,” he noted. “Families are plunged into a state of anguish, desperately trying to keep the flame of hope alive while fearing the worst. They may be trapped in this limbo for years, even decades.”
Patnaik wants the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh to immediately stop the practice and investigate and address cases of past abuse.
“It is about time that governments in the region properly investigate and punish cases of enforced disappearances and consign this practice to the past,” he said.
The AI statement says the island nation of Sri Lanka has the highest numbers of enforced disappearances with up to 100,000 cases.
“The victims include Sinhalese young people who were killed or forcibly disappeared by government death squads on suspicion of leftist links in 1989 and 1990,” the statement said. “They include Tamils suspected of links to the LTTE, disappeared by police, military and paramilitary operatives during the conflict from 1983 to 2009.”
Enforced disappearances remain a divisive issue in Pakistan, where a government commission, activists, and politicians claim that thousands have disappeared amid separatist and Taliban insurgencies during the past two decades.
“People who have been forcibly disappeared include bloggers, journalists, students, political activists, human rights defenders, members of religious minorities, and suspected members of armed groups,” AI’s statement said. “Once confined to the restive provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, cases of enforced disappearance now strike deep into Pakistan’s heartlands and its main cities.”
In neighboring Afghanistan, the situation is equally grim but for different reasons. Tens of thousands of Afghans still wait to hear from loved ones they lost during various phases of war in their country. Enforced disappearances followed the communist coup of April 1978 and remained a feature of the civil war and the country becoming an epicenter of the global war on terrorism after September 11, 2001.
AI says enforced disappearances continue in Afghanistan. “Instead of reckoning with this haunting past and granting truth, justice, and reparations to all these victims, the Afghan government has failed to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance even as people continue to be snatched from their families by the authorities,” it said.
The organization says that South Asia’s largest country, India, also has a major enforced disappearances problem. It noted that such cases are mostly confined to regions reeling from insurgencies such as the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir in the northwest and the northeastern state of Manipur.
A 2017 report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in 2017 noted that some 8,000 enforced disappearances were reported in Kashmir during separatist unrest from 1989 to 2012.
“India has not made enforced disappearances a specific criminal offense in its penal code. As a result, families of the ‘disappeared’ have to file complaints under general provisions of Indian criminal law,” AI said. “Despite signing the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in 2007, India is yet to ratify the convention.”
AI South Asia Director Patnaik wants regional governments to act swiftly.
“People who have been subjected to enforced disappearance must be immediately released unless they can be charged with a recognizable offense,” he said.