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(New York) – The Pakistani government should affirm its commitment to end enforced disappearances by ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Human Rights Watch said today. The third annual United Nations International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances is on August 30, 2013.

“Ratifying the Convention against Disappearances is a key test for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new government,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director. “The government would send a clear political message that it’s serious about ending ‘disappearances’. And it would show its commitment to ensuring justice for serious human rights violations.”

Pakistan’s participation in the United States-led “war on terror” since 2001 has resulted in hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals being “disappeared.” In addition to those arbitrarily detained in counterterrorism operations, journalists, human rights activists, and alleged members of separatist and nationalist groups, particularly in Balochistan province, have been and continue to be forcibly disappeared.

Despite repeated denials by Pakistan’s security agencies, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has acknowledged and human rights groups have documented evidence of the involvement of intelligence and security agencies in enforced disappearances. In July, Pakistan’s attorney general admitted that more than 500 “disappeared” persons are in security agency custody.

“Pakistan’s failure to hold even a single perpetrator of enforced disappearances to account perpetuates the culture of impunity in Pakistan,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific regional director of ICJ. “The prevalence of gross violations of human rights in the country today is partly a legacy of this impunity.”

Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person’s whereabouts, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture, a risk even greater when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as prisons and police stations.

An enforced disappearance removes an individual from the protection of the law. It violates many of the rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Pakistan ratified in 2010. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly described enforced disappearance as “an offense to human dignity” and “a grave and flagrant violation” of international human rights law.

“In Balochistan and beyond, Pakistani security forces have forcibly disappeared, tortured, and unlawfully killed people in the name of counterterrorism,” Hasan said. “Pakistan has a responsibility to arrest and prosecute militants acting outside the law, but abuses against suspects cannot be explained away as a way to end terrorism.”

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in its 2012 report on Pakistan found that the country’s counterterrorism laws, in particular the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, and the FATA/PATA Action (in aid of civil powers) Regulations 2011, allowed arbitrary deprivation of liberty, which has enabled enforced disappearances.

The ICJ and Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani government to carry out a full review of security-related legislation and ensure that all laws conform to Pakistan’s international law obligations to prevent such violations.

“All disappeared persons must be released or, if charged with recognizable crimes, brought without further delay before a court to see if their continuing detention is legal,” Zarifi said. “The government should also fully investigate and prosecute those who are responsible for ordering, participating, or carrying out enforced disappearances.”

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