Pakistan: Amendments to enforced disappearance bill a backward step on promised reform

Proposed amendments to legislation to outlaw enforced disappearance in Pakistan violate international human rights law and would allow state actors to behave with impunity, said Amnesty International.  

More than three months after first receiving the draft bill, which has already been pending for more than two and a half years, the Pakistani parliament’s Senate Standing Committee on Interior returned feedback on the draft amendment bill over the weekend that would enable enforced disappearance to continue lawfully under certain circumstances defined by the authorities. The amendments would also allow criminal charges to be brought against anyone deemed to have made ‘false allegations’, with a penalty of up to five years imprisonment alongside a fine of PKR 100,000. 

Enforced disappearance – in which state agents and, sometimes, non-state agents deny holding an individual or refuse to provide information on their fate or whereabouts – have been routinely used by Pakistan’s intelligence services since the inception of the so-called “War on Terror” in 2001, to target human rights defenders, political activists, students, and journalists, with the fate of hundreds of victims still unknown. 

“These amendments make a mockery of the idea that this bill would outlaw enforced disappearances. They provide the authorities with various loopholes that would allow the practice to continue at their discretion, while the power to bring charges against those accused of making ‘false’ claims would also greatly discourage people from reporting cases,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia. 

The Standing Committee has also not taken any of the feedback from civil society, victim groups and human rights organizations on board. The amendment bill still does not clearly define its mandate and does not specify under which legal structure victim families will be able to file a complaint, how compensation will be determined, and what retrospective effect the amendment will have, if any. This, coupled with the lack of consultations with these groups prior to presentation of the Bill has been a disappointing approach to the legislative process.   

“Enforced disappearances have been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record for too long. We urge the parliament to reject these amendments and end this shameful practice once and for all, by passing a bill that meets international human rights law and standards,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.  

Amnesty International is particularly concerned that the amendments would only outlaw enforced disappearance which has been carried out “illegally and without lawful authority” – a phrase added throughout the amended bill. This language, which violates international law, implies that enforced disappearance could be deemed lawful in given circumstances defined by the authorities.  

The amendments also failed to address a host of fundamental flaws in the bill which Amnesty International outlined on this year’s UN International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearance.