“Many of the victims were so weak from torture and detention that they had to be helped aboard the plane. Once in flight, they were injected with a sedative by an Argentine Navy doctor before two officers stripped them and shoved them to their deaths. […] He estimated that the navy conducted the flights every Wednesday for two years, 1977 and 1978, and that 1,500 to 2,000 people were killed. ” (New York Times, 1995)
Today is International Day of the Disappeared, marking the tens or hundreds of people who have been abducted or killed and whose fates remain unknown. Enforced disappearances, forcible disappearances, or desaparecidos in Latin America – where the concept first rose to prominence – refers to (in Article 2)
the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
Enforced disappearances were a substantial feature of the Latin American dirty wars, with estimates of over 16,000 people disappeared in Peru, an estimated 30,000 in Argentina, 45,000 in Guatemala during the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, and estimates of 15,000 to 109,000 disappeared in Colombia. And it’s not just in Latin America; according to the International Centre for Transitional Justice,
The practice has been reported in more than 85 countries Sri Lanka is estimated to have had more than 30,000 cases since the 1980s, with similar numbers in Guatemala and Colombia for the same period. More recently in 2003 and 2004, Nepal is reported to have had the world’s highest number of new cases of disappearance. Successive al-Assad regimes in Syria have used disappearances as a tool of fear since the 1970s.In South Africa hundreds of activists went missing after being detained by apartheid security forces
In the case of Argentina,
The pattern was similar for those arrested. Many were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, tortured at clandestine detention centres and then disposed of. After years of investigations, it is thought that some bodies were destroyed with dynamite and others buried in unknown common graves, but the majority were thrown from planes into the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition, women who were pregnant were often forcibly separated from their children, with those children being given to military families for adoption. In Syria, “More than 65,000 people, most of them civilians, were forcibly disappeared between March 2011 and August 2015 and remained missing, Amnesty said, citing figures from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a Syria-based monitoring group.”
Enforced disappearance is like a kidnapping or extrajudicial detention, and likely also torture and/or extrajudicial execution, but it has the features of being committed by State agents or with their acquiescence, and a denial of the whereabouts or the fate of the person concerned. It’s not like the situation of persons missing during armed conflict or natural disaster, because the person was generally deliberately abducted by authorities who then refuse to acknowledge having the individuals. It’s its own crime, not just kidnapping, torture or killing, even if all of these things also happened.
Enforced disappearances are particularly horrific because the circumstances of the person remain unknown. And the crime continues – with both the disappeared individual as well as his or her family – for as long as there is no resolution. An enforced disappearance not only removes (percieved) political opponents, it avoids the evidence and the witnesses and the international outcry, as a tool to create a climate of terror among family members or other activists, who may be forced to bribe middlemen for information out of fear of approaching the State authorities directly.
‘Detainees were squeezed into overcrowded, dirty cells where disease was rampant and medical treatment unavailable, Amnesty said, while those imprisoned suffered torture through methods such as electric shocks, whipping, suspension, burning and rape. “People would die and then be replaced,” Salam Othman, who was forcibly disappeared from 2011 to 2014, was quoted as saying in the report. “I did not leave the cell for the whole three years, not once … Many people became hysterical and lost their minds.”’
On the human rights law side, enforced disappearances constitute “a multiple human rights violation.” They violate the right to life, the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security of the person, and the right to a fair and public trial. These rights are set out in the ICCPR and the Convention against Torture. There is even a UN Declaration on Enforced Disappearances, an Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
A widespread or systematic pattern of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime against humanity according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which provides that enforced disappearances are a crime against humanity “when committed as a part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” In some circumstances, enforced disappearances may also constitute a war crime: The Geneva Conventions also stipulate that persons taken into custody (combatants or otherwise) must not be murdered or executed without trial, must have due process.
- Council of Europe: Commissioner for Human Rights, Missing persons and victims of enforced disappearance in Europe, March 2016
- UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) , Consideration of reports of States parties pursuant to article 29 of the Convention : [International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance] : reports of States parties pursuant to article 29, paragraph 1, of the Convention due in 2012 : Spain, 28 January 2013, CED/C/ESP/1
- Human Rights Watch, UAE: Enforced Disappearance and Torture, 14 September 2012
- International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Colombia: Disappearance, 10 July 2013
- Human Rights Watch, Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored, 20 February 2013
- International Crisis Group (ICG), Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State, 23 October 2015, Latin America Report N°55