The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) was met with little enthusiasm on its arrival in Pakistan in September although it caused a few ripples in certain political circles. With the exception of human rights organisations, the working group was not accorded a great deal of importance or respect. Instead, it was roundly criticised by many, terming it as interference in Pakistan’s internal matters. Interestingly, the two-member team was visiting Pakistan at the invitation of the government. Expressing his reservations, Raza Rabbani, Chairman Parliamentary Committee on National Security, urged the government to not invite any international group in the future and instead resolve the missing persons cases by means of national institutions. Except the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, who greeted the WGEID upon its arrival, no other top government official met the group. Moreover, when the working group expressed its desire to meet with the Chief Justice its request was also turned down. Here, the Herald discusses the origins of WGEID and examines the extent of its mandate.
What is the WGEID?
By means of resolution 20, which was passed 32 years ago on 29 February, 1980, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights decided to “establish for a period of one year, a working group consisting of five of its members to serve as experts in its individual capacities, to examine questions relevant to enforced or involuntary disappearances of persons.”
The group’s mandate adheres primarily to “assist the relatives of disappeared persons to ascertain the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared family members.” To this end, the group investigates and examines the reports of disappearances on the basis of individual cases or if a human rights body registers its concerns. They work on a humanitarian basis, irrespective of whether a particular country has ratified the existing UN laws on human rights. As stated on its website, the working group “acts as a channel of communication between the families of disappeared persons and governments, and has successfully developed a dialogue with the majority of governments concerned with the aim of solving cases of disappearance.”
The working group holds three sessions in a year, all of which are held privately. The third session for the year 2012 will take place in Geneva from October 31 till November 9.
The need to have an independent commission arose particularly in the 1970s, when global NGOs highlighted gross human rights violations that remained etched in peoples’ consciousness following atrocities reported in South Africa, Israel, and Chile. These efforts resulted in the formation of UN Country Rapporteurs but the need to construct a mechanism that could effectively monitor individual countries persisted and eventually led to the formation of WGEID.
When the WGEID was formed in 1980, its original mandate was described under the Commission on Human Rights resolution 20 and was developed by the Commission and its successor the Human Rights Council in numerous further resolutions.
The group works in accordance with two primary objectives, one being the humanitarian mandate and the other a monitoring mandate. In the former, the group provides assistance to families who have lost their loved ones, helping them to determine their whereabouts by contacting their respective governments. While undertaking such cases, the group engages with the government of a particular country while investigating any violation of human rights. The second mandate of a monitoring mechanism has been entrusted with being watchful of the government’s compliance with international law.
Country visits by WGEID
In order to adequately carry out their investigations, the WGEID is required to visit those countries with questionable records of human rights violations including cases of involuntary disappearances. However, the visit can only be undertaken if the government of a particular country itself invites the working group, or if the WGEID requests a visit.
During the working group’s visit, it tries meeting with government authorities, NGOs, legal representatives, human rights organisations and, above all, family members of the disappeared persons. A report compiled at the end of the visit is intended to assist the government in detecting factors due to which enforced disappearances are taking place and recommend solutions in order to remedy the situation.
During this year, the group was invited by the governments of Chile, Ecuador, Serbia and Tajikistan besides Pakistan, while 22 countries declined WGEID’s request for a visit.
WGEID and Pakistan
The visit to Pakistan was not made in isolation, a few months ago, UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay made a visit to the country. As explained by Khar, after meeting with the working group, the WGEID’s purpose of visiting was merely to engage the government in the promotion of human rights. She also referred to Pillay’s visit as part of an ongoing process which concluded with WGEID’s visit. The working group has released its preliminary findings on its website whereas the final report will be made available during its annual session in 2013.