On this day, August 30, the international community is commemorating the International Day of the Disappeared. This annual day has been created to draw attention to the fate of the missing and disappeared people throughout the world. Many of these individuals were imprisoned or are being held under poor conditions or have gone missing in armed conflicts or other situations of violence. Their fate is unresolved. Sometimes they are civilians who have been abducted and are being detained. At other times, they may have been separated from their families while fleeing the conflicts, or they might be soldiers or civilians who have been killed and their remains improperly disposed of.
The day is a reminder that many families are still unaware of the fate of their loved ones missing in conflicts. As a result, international human rights organizations everywhere have expressed their concern or solidarity. For instance, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) calls on all governments to provide answers to families on the fate and whereabouts of missing persons. Similarly, a group called Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) issued a statement with journalists and media personnel worldwide today.
So did the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. In a statement, marking August 30, 2023 as the first UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, this Geneva-based UN group stated:
They are not alone in their struggle. Today, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances marks the first UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances; a special day to spotlight this heinous crime, and to remind victims, including the families and associations of victims of those who disappeared, that they are not alone.
“He was arrested in 1997 and there has been no news since…” (Testimony of the mother of a disappeared person)
Unfortunately, enforced disappearances continue to be used by some States as a tool to deal with situations of conflict or internal unrest. We have also witnessed the use of the so-called “short-term disappearances,” where victims are placed in secret detention or unknown locations, outside the protection of the law, before being released weeks or months later, sometimes after having been tortured and without having been brought in front of a judge or other civil authority.
This very worrisome practice, whether it is used to counter terrorism, to fight organized crime or suppress legitimate civil strife demanding democracy, freedom of expression or religion, should be considered as an enforced disappearance and as such adequately investigated, prosecuted and punished.
The UN Working Group is composed of five independent experts from all regions of the world. The chair-rapporteur is Jeremy Sarkin (South Africa), the vice-chair is Olivier de Frouville (France), and the other expert-members are Ariel Dulitzky (Argentina), Jasminka Dzumhur (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Osman El-Hajjé (Lebanon).
The statement from the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) reads, in part:
Today, we honor all victims of enforced disappearance, considered one of the cruelest forms of human rights violations. In 2010, recognizing the global magnitude of the crime and the never-ending sufferings of the desaparecidos’ families, the United Nations officially recognized August 30 as the International Day of the Disappeared. The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), which is the Focal Point of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances, joins all the families of the disappeared and human rights advocates world-wide in commemorating this day by resonating the call for an end to enforced disappearance and by renewing its organizational commitment to take action.
Enforced disappearance is an international phenomenon. It is a major concern of 94 countries based on the 2010 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance (UN WGEID). Many of these cases occur in 27 countries of Asia, a continent that has the highest number of cases submitted to the UNWGEID in recent years. Unfortunately, Asia lacks a strong regional mechanism for redress. No Asian country has a domestic law penalizing enforced disappearance as a separate and autonomous criminal offense. This condition perpetuates a climate of impunity allowing perpetrators to escape accountability and increasing possibilities for repetition.
Indeed, globally, thousands of people are forcibly disappeared by their own governments or individuals or groups acting on states’ authorization, support or acquiescence. Bereft of legal safeguards, they are often tortured, confined under constant fear or threat of death, and in many instances, murdered without any trace.
Their families are equally victimized, not knowing their loved ones’ fate and whereabouts and are put in a perpetual state of hope and despair, wondering and waiting, pleading and demanding for answers that may never ever come.
The impulse for the Day of the Disappeared originally came from the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of Detained-Disappeared (Federación Latinoamericana de Asociaciones de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos, or FEDEFAM). Founded in 1981 in Costa Rica, FEDEFAM is a non-governmental organization; it was structured as an association of local and regional groups actively working against secret imprisonment and forced disappearances in a number of Latin-American countries.
The British Red Cross, meanwhile, has established an international tracing and message services network as part of a global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement which works to restore and maintain contact between families by searching for family members who have gone missing in conflict situations. This global network can also put them back in touch when normal means of communication have broken down by exchanging messages between loved ones. According to spokespersons from the British Red Cross:
In the weeks running up towards Tuesday 30th August and on the Day itself, we are asking people to mark the International Day of the Disappeared by remembering all those currently missing as a result of conflicts around the world. Around the country we will be hosting a series of events and handing out ‘forget-me-not bookmarks’. In some areas we will be asking the public, our service users and other organisations who we work closely with, to plant and grow seeds and flowers to keep alive the memories of these missing loved ones.
The majority of the British Red Cross’s cases are people who have fled conflict in other parts of the world and in doing so lost touch with their relatives. Our cases originate from many different conflicts around the world in countries such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq among others. In addition over 10% of our case load still relates to relatives trying to discover the fate of family members who they lost contact with as a result of World War Two.Right now, we are working on more than 1000 cases on behalf of individuals who are desperate to know the fate of their loved ones who have gone missing in conflicts.
Although the phenomenon of the missing and disappeared is worldwide, the International Committee of the Red Cross has identified that the specific situations in these countries and regions have been some of the most distressed:
- Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Senegal.
- Asia and the Pacific: East Timor, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
- Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Russian Federation and Serbia (Kosovo).
- The Americas: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.
- Middle East and North Africa: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and disappearances relating to the Western Sahara conflict.