Find the unadulterated truth about all alleged disappearances
It was in December 2010 that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) designated August 30 as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, in order to express its deep concern about the increase in enforced disappearances across the world, as well as harassment, ill treatment, and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared. Though there has been widespread allegations of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, particularly from the second term of the current Awami League government, no credible and independent investigation has been carried out into any of the alleged incidents. First came wholesale denial of the allegations; then began the ridiculing of accusers. And presently, the authorities – in their desperate attempt to suppress the facts – have resorted to intimidating anyone who dares to speak up. The result, however, is a hugely varied number of disappeared persons being referred to by human rights groups, local and international media, and independent observers.
Though the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has been working on more than 80 reported cases for the last few years, a leading rights group, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) claims it has documented at least 623 victims of enforced disappearance between January 2009 and June 2022. As of September 2022, according to the AHRC, among those 623 victims, 153 people still remained disappeared, 84 bodies were found after disappearance, while 383 victims were found alive (either imprisoned or returned home) but refused to reveal their ordeals.
Ministers have repeatedly tried to deflect the issue of enforced disappearances by conflating it with incidents of voluntary disappearances or people hiding themselves for various reasons, including psychiatric issues. This seems to be a deliberate attempt by lawmakers to create confusion among the wider population. But, in most of the alleged incidents of enforced disappearance, witnesses and families reported the involvement of law enforcement agencies, which nullifies the official explanation of people going missing of their own volition.
Whether or not an incident should be considered an “enforced disappearance” does not depend on any political narrative. Rather, as defined in the UNGA‘s Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an enforced disappearance occurs when “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organised groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”
All of the alleged incidents in Bangladesh fit the pattern mentioned in the UNGA definition. There was complete silence on the part of authorities after each abduction, followed by a refusal to disclose the whereabouts of the disappeared or guarantee the victims and their families of their right to seek protection of the law. Relatives of disappeared persons are caught between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, many for years, for news that may never come. Their quest for truth and justice is another struggle owing to the harassment, threats, or reprisals to deter their search and investigation activities. All of these acts on the part of the perpetrators are quite common in every country where autocratic or authoritarian regimes resort to employing the inhumane tactic of disappearing people to suppress dissent.
Many observers have noted that enforced disappearances and so-called crossfire deaths markedly decreased following the imposition of sanctions by the United States against the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) in December 2021. Rights groups, however, report a new phenomenon of “short-term enforced disappearances,” in which victims are being taken away for a few days or weeks only to be shown arrested later, leaving the victims’ disappearance (after being picked up and before being shown as arrested) unexplained. The AHRC has compiled reports on dozens of such involuntary disappearances since 2021, victims of which have resurfaced alive and have been implicated in cases of terrorism, arson, militancy, and other criminal offences. In the first six months of this year, the AHRC documented 16 such incidents, as confirmed by an executive of the commission to this columnist.
There’s no being content about the fact that the number of enforced disappearances has fallen significantly. These incidents must cease to occur altogether. Besides, without finding out the truth and ensuring justice, any closure of past incidents should be unimaginable. Unadulterated truth can only be achieved through an independent and transparent investigation into all those alleged incidents.
Though Bangladesh is not among the 72 signatories to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and thereby is not required to regularly report to the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED), it is still subject to scrutiny by another UN special procedure known as the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID). The WGEID applies to all member states of the United Nations, without the need for ratification or accession of the convention. The Working Group assists families of disappeared persons to ascertain the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared relatives. It also assists states and monitors their compliance with obligations deriving from the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
In recent years, we have heard ruling party ministers and intellectuals alleging that the WGEID has made a fictitious list of victims of enforced disappearance. But the Working Group apparently saw these as an attempt to question the humanitarian procedure of the WGEID and communicated its concerns to the government. On December 22, 2022, it wrote to the Bangladesh government about an emerging pattern of intimidation and harassment against relatives of disappeared persons, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations working to clarify the fate and whereabouts of disappeared individuals. It specifically referred to “continued harassment and intimidation against Mr Adilur Rahman Khan, Sanjida Islam Tulee, and the members of Odhikar and Maayer Daak.”
There’s no being content about the fact that the number of enforced disappearances has fallen significantly. These incidents must cease to occur altogether. Besides, without finding out the truth and ensuring justice, any closure of past incidents should be unimaginable. Unadulterated truth can only be achieved through an independent and transparent investigation into all those alleged incidents. All political parties should commit to make this happen as soon as possible. We need to bring an end to the agonies of families of the disappeared.