Enforced disappearances: a serious violation of human rights

August 30 has been declared the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances by the United Nations General Assembly. Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole.


An enforced disappearance occurs when persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will, or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals, followed by a refuse to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.


It is a global problem that does not only affect a specific region of the world, but has been reported in at least 85 countries. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can nowadays be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents.


Of particular concern are the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance. Special attention must also be paid to specific groups of especially vulnerable people, like children and people with disabilities.


Victims deprived of all their rights


Having been removed from the protective precinct of the law, victims of enforced disappearance are in fact deprived of all their rights, such as the right to:


  • To recognition as a person before the law;
  • To liberty and security of the person;
  • Not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • To life, when the disappeared person is killed;
  • To an identity;
  • To a fair trial and to judicial guarantees;
  • To an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation;
  • To know the truth regarding the circumstances of a disappearance.


Enforced disappearances also violate various economic, social and cultural rights for both the victims as well as their families, such as the right to:


  • To protection and assistance to the family;
  • To an adequate standard of living;
  • To health;
  • To education.


Who is affected?


1. The victims themselves


The victims are frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives. They are well aware that their families do not know what has become of them and that the chances are slim that anyone will come to their aid. Even if the victim is eventually released from the nightmare, the physical and psychological scars of this form of dehumanization and the brutality and torture which often accompany it remain.


2. Friends and Families of the Victims


The families and friends of the victims do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. They alternate between hope and despair, waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come. They experience slow mental anguish, not knowing whether the victim is still alive and, if so, where he or she is being held, under what conditions, and in what state of health.


The family’s distress is frequently compounded by the material consequences of the disappearance, since the person who disappears is often the family’s main breadwinner. As women are often at the forefront of the struggle to resolve the disappearance of family members, they may suffer intimidation, persecution and reprisals.


3. Children


Children can also be victims, both directly and indirectly. The disappearance of a child is a clear contravention of a number of provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to a personal identity. The loss of a parent through disappearance is also a serious violation of a child’s human rights.


By: Juan Carlos Ugarelli

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