THIS day, 30 August, marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The day is observed not only to remember and seek justice for those who were subjected to enforced disappearance but also to reflect on the conditions that breed such heinous practice. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to raise the issue why those in charge of the State continue to deny the existence of such practice of law enforcement agencies that are under their command and thus abet its perpetuation.
“He wanted to flee when RAB came. I dissuaded him and handed him over (to the law enforcers) believing my son will be proven innocent. Later, when I went to the concerned office, they flatly denied picking him up. My neighbours saw that he was pushed into a van used by the agency. How can I ever live with my conscience that I gave my own son to the killers?” This heart wrenching question was put to the audience at a recent consultation organised by Moulik Odhikar Shurokkha Committee by a father of one of the eight youths who were made to disappear on 4 November 2013 from Shahinbagh area of the city. Till this day all remain traceless. None of the eight families has been able to secure any information regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones. This has not been an isolated case.
A single case of enforced disappearance is one too many. When that becomes systemic, one has little option but to deduce that something is grossly wrong in the domain of law enforcement and governance of the State in general.
From the 1970s as the authoritarian regimes began to held sway over some Latin American states several hundred thousands of people were made to disappear by the military and paramilitary forces. Secret imprisonment and forced disappearances were the order of the day. As the countries began to recover and make transition to democracy the incidence of enforced disappearances waned. Such disappearance is also common in countries that experience civil war. Rights groups estimate that as many as 100,000 to 120,000 people have become victims of disappearance in these countries since the strife broke out. Indian rights activists allege their law enforcement agencies are engaged in such practices in Kashmir and in a few north-eastern states.
What was essentially a feature of military dictatorships, enforced disappearance gradually transformed into an endemic phenomenon in 'complex situations of internal conflict'. In recent years the virus has contaminated other countries that pride themselves as democratic. Although these States have the paraphernalia of a democratic polity - parliament, executive, judiciary and periodic elections, and are under civilian rule, in reality they are no less authoritarian than the much detested military dictatorships.
Rule of law and citizens' rights become the first casualty of a system run by an elite that does not distinguish between party and people's interests, that cares little about popular support, and that vests all power on an individual. Devoid of democratic ethos such regimes' continuation depends on the coercive arm of the state, placating and condoning all actions of the law enforcement agencies, however loathsome and illegal those may be. It is in this context one needs to understand the cases of enforced disappearance and extra judicial killings in Bangladesh.
The first Awami League government created the infamous Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (JRB) that introduced the practice. The first BNP government of Begum Khaleda Zia created JRB's apt successor by initiating the notorious Operation Clean Heart bestowing indemnity, and establishing the Rapid Action Battalion. Not surprisingly, the special force continues to enjoy unflinching support of the current Awami League government as its human and materiel capacity gets further beefed up. One does not need to reiterate the level of confidence that the special force currently enjoys among the populace.
Incidences of enforced disappearance in recent years increased as the figure of extra judicial killings began to register a decline. Those involved in this act of the extrajudicial killings found it convenient to make such a switch. What began as a quick fix to get rid of criminals and thugs, who allegedly were able secure reprieve due to the loopholes in the system over a period, gave a way to contract killing for errant members of the law enforcers (the 7 murder case of Narayanganj). Following the pattern set in other countries, dissenting voices and political opposition became the next obvious targets. By now enforced disappearance became a handy tool to spread fear in the society. The feeling of insecurity generated is not necessarily restricted to the relatives and friends of the disappeared; it also affects the community and society as a whole.
Enforced disappearance removes the 'disappeared' from the safe zone of the law. The victims are deprived of all their rights and are left at the mercy of their captors. They are denied the benefits of a plethora of rights that include recognition as a person before the law, liberty and security, not to be subjected to torture, degrading and inhumane treatment, right to life, to an identity, to a fair trial and judicial guarantee, to effective remedy, to know the truth regarding circumstances of a disappearance and to protection and assistance of the family.
Enforced disappearance also harms the law enforcement agencies in a major way, endangering national security – purportedly a major concern of the ruling elite. Through subverting the regular criminal justice system, the perpetrators attempt to erase signs of their association with the crime by not recording the detainees in the register, by denying that the victims are in their hands and by disposing off their bodies secretly. Various indemnity measures encourage them not to follow the due process of law. Once an act is committed, instead of exposing the person/s engaged, the concerned agencies are predisposed to deny any wrongdoing and shun any call for investigation. The institution that perpetrators represent develops a psychology that repudiates the rule of law and that of dissent. Their newfound mental mooring makes their return to institutional discipline and standard norms of law enforcement almost impossible. In most cases they are unable to perform their regular law enforcement task with loyalty.
If the government remains unaccountable and oblivious to disappearance and extra-judicial killings it generates cynicism and apathy among the common masses and they begin to lose faith in the law. Law enforcement without responsibility and due process erodes the foundation of a democracy and augurs ill for everyone - rulers and the ruled.
It's time we collectively demand an end to enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings, justice and reparation for the victims, ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and framing of enabling laws to criminalize the acts. We also urge those in the political leadership to take a fresh look at their approach to enforced disappearance and instead of denying, come to terms with the reality and take action against the perpetrators, adhere to the principles of rule of law and positively respond to the demands made above. Needless to say, this day dedicated to the disappeared provides both parties the opportunity to reflect and act.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is president of Odhikar.