Ever since the creation of the nation-state, and perhaps even before it, the pre-dominant way of understanding international relations has been political realism. Classical thinkers like Thucydides, Hobbes, and Machiavelli described the human condition as a war between self-interested States vying for power. A government must use, they argued, all means at its disposal, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, to further its power and undermine that of its competitors. Almost any action was justifiable so long as it contributed to the peace, prosperity, and stability of the State.

Given Pakistan’s geo-political positioning, it is no surprise that political realism was adopted as a way of life early on. With Pakistan’s border running side by side with India, Iran, Afghanistan and China, the security of the state was naturally conceived as the number one priority for any ruler. That our defense expenditure is more than the combined budget for health and education services is a stark reminder of this reality.

But it wasn’t just the enemy outside our borders, which we needed to be wary about. There was also the “enemy within” which we feared. Be it the numerous local insurgencies or more recently Al-Qaeda/ISIS, there has always been one group or more that has been trying to undermine the security and stability of the state, by violent means if necessary.

Our regular law enforcement system has never been enough to cope with these groups or “enemies” of the state. After all, where our police was equipped with batons and pistols, they carried automatic weapons and bombs. Where our legal system guaranteed a right to a fair trial, they promised an execution by beheading. The established rules of the game did not apply to them. The state needed to do something more; something else. And the state delivered.

Short of legalising torture (which too we now ignore by admitting suspect confessions as “evidence”), we have come to accept, sanctify, and legalise the infringement of every liberty which the post WWII “civilised” world promised us.

The very first day that our constitution was promulgated, we recognised in its Article 10 (3) preventive detention as legitimate exclusion to our “fundamental right” against arbitrary arrest and confinement. When the issue of enforced disappearances was raised at the Supreme Court, the State responded by legalising “internment centers” through the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulation 2011. When critics contested the efficacy of our judicial system to convict terrorists, the Parliament demonstrated rare unanimity and created a separate system of military courts.

And this is why perhaps the issue of “missing persons” perturbs me. When the state has practically surrendered all policing, prosecution and judicial powers to its security arm, why would it still feel the need to “illegally” confine anyone? It is not as if the judiciary or the police can (or will) set someone free who is detained at an internment center. In fact, it appears that any inquiry by the Commission on Enforced Disappearances (a body created by the Parliament to resolve missing person cases) ends the moment it is officially informed that the “missing person” is held at an internment camp.

So why is it that the number of “missing persons” in Pakistan is still on the rise? According to the Defence of Human Rights organisation by 2015 there were 5,149 missing persons. The Commission on Enforced Disappearances disputes these numbers, but even they have over a 1000 pending cases; in fact, as many 728 cases were added to their list in 2016 alone!

Law enforcement officials claim that the unresolved cases concern people who are dead, have absconded on account of some crime or have been kidnapped for ransom or on grounds of enmity, among other things.

Public poll after poll establishes the credentials of the armed forces as the most trusted institution in Pakistan. Should we therefore be inclined to believe what they are telling us? May be, but past experience also lends some doubt. We were after all told that the army did not influence the 1990 general elections by funding rival political parties. But then came the Asghar Khan judgment (which to date has not been implemented). We were also told that the army is free of corrupt influence, but then we were introduced to the NICL and DHA Valley scams.

More directly relevant is perhaps the damning record of the hundreds of missing persons’ cases before the Supreme Court. In 2013, for instance, the evidence before the Court led Chief Justice Chaudhry to publicly link the instance of missing persons to the Frontier Corps (FC). In yet another case, uniformed officers of the FC were held to be responsible for illegally picking up 35 prisoners at an internment center in the Malakand region.

I do not mean to suggest that the armed forces are behind every enforced disappearance in Pakistan. But the fact that they have credibly been linked to some of them should raise cause for concern or at least curiosity: why would they illegally abduct a person when they can legitimately exercise the authority of the state to achieve the same end?

The best answer that I have managed so far is quite simply: they do it, because they can. Given the absent accountability, why should they bother with process and legal formalities?

How can we even dare to challenge their actions and fidelity to the state? We simply can’t. Thus we have the unpublished report of the Inquiry Commission on Enforced Disappearances which apparently contains the names of all those who are responsible for the disappearance of missing persons. But will this report ever see the light of day? I think not.

One can accept that realism has driven our state, like many others, down an immoral path on which there is no turning back. But as we go further down this road, we would do well to remember the following words of James Madison:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.