Pakistan’s Supreme Court this week recognized the enormity of the country’s problem of enforced disappearances with a simple directive: identify the bodies.

On February 10, the Supreme Court asked federal and provincial governments to ensure that “whenever a dead body is found, the relatives of the missing persons should be contacted to identify it.” That’s no small task. Official statistics indicate that since 2009, authorities have recovered the bodies of 4,557 suspected victims of enforced disappearance and subsequent extrajudicial execution, of which 266 remain unidentified.

Those figures reflect the brutal toll of government agencies’ deplorable practice of abducting people and then denying holding them, or not providing information about their fate or whereabouts. Such enforced disappearances – most often of men and boys – occur regularly throughout Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and northwestern Pakistan, but also in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Under international law, an enforced disappearance is a “continuous” crime: it persists, and continues to inflict suffering on the victim’s family, as long as the fate of the missing person is unknown or concealed.

The Supreme Court singled out Balochistan’s provincial government for criticism for failing to inform relatives of “missing persons” after the recovery of unidentified dead bodies. That criticism is well-earned. Human Rights Watch research has revealed abject official failure to establish and provide families information on disappearance victims in Balochistan. In many cases, police beat and dragged suspects handcuffed and blindfolded into vehicles, failing to identify themselves or explain the basis for arrest.

Recent developments cause even greater concern. In July 2014 the government enacted the Protection of Pakistan Bill, 2014, which facilitates enforced disappearances by retrospectively legitimizing detention at undisclosed locations and providing immunity to state security forces acting “in good faith.” On January 7, 2015, the government enacted a constitutional amendment permitting military courts to prosecute terrorism suspects. That law – part of a wider new National Action Plan against terrorism – allows secret prosecutions and the denial of due process.

The Pakistan Supreme Court is asking the right questions. Now it’s up to the government to reverse its refusal to comply with Supreme Court demands for justice for victims of enforced disappearances, as well as recommendations from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2012. The government should also ratify and implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, review and amend all existing security legislation to ensure compatibility with international human rights standards, and release or formally charge everyone in secret detention. 

Failure to do so will only mean more disappearances, more distraught families, and yet more bullet-ridden, unidentified bodies.