Header image for news printout

Thirtieth Anniversary of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights - Geneva, 5 November 2009

Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Experts of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances,
Distinguished Panelists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to be part of today’s event to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.  The High Commissioner, who is travelling, sends her heartfelt congratulations and warmest regards.

This occasion offers us an opportunity to pay homage to those who have disappeared and their families and friends by taking stock of progress made and gaps in the response of the international community to the on-going crime of enforced disappearance. It also allows us to craft an effective roadmap to bridge these gaps and help build a world where “no one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance.”

This morning’s panel will address the history of the Working Group, while the panel this afternoon will discuss how it can take its work forward.  We can all draw from the knowledge, insights and wisdom of the distinguished experts who will participate in today’s discussions.  Some of them are pioneer champions in the fight against enforced disappearances. In addition, we are joined by the current members of the Working Group.

I am particularly pleased to welcome civil society representatives from around the world. Most are relatives of persons who disappeared. They have been instrumental in bringing to the attention of the world this tragic drama, as they demand with strong determination to know the truth on the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones and obtain justice. Some have been mocked and harassed by authorities, and sometimes they have risked disappearance themselves, but these relatives have gone beyond their personal tragedy and come together with others. They have organized and dedicated themselves to a common cause. Due to their tireless efforts and commitment the Working Group was established and, after decades of struggle, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. We only need one more State to ratify or accede to this instrument to bring the Convention into force.

            As I am sure this morning’s panelists will describe the history and mandate of the Working Group, my remarks will focus on two distinct features of the Working Group which have helped to shape the entire system of the Special Procedures as we know them now. For the first time a global, thematic mechanism of a universal nature was created. This mechanism did not require a basis in a binding treaty, to enable it to examine situations of disappearances all over the world. As a particular innovation, this mechanism was provided with the capacity of using “urgent action procedures.”

            The past thirty years of the Working Group has shown significant strength, but also some limitations. Since its establishment it dealt with some 50,000 cases relating to almost 80 countries and of those only 20% were resolved. This is the tip of the iceberg in the actual number of disappeared.  The reasons for this lie in the very nature of the crime of enforced disappearance which, by definition, is perpetrated by State authorities, who are usually reluctant to collaborate in resolving the cases until it is long after the facts occurred.

            Equally, the Working Group is not mandated to investigate individual cases directly, adopt measures of protection against reprisals, carry out exhumations, or grant satisfaction or reparation. Also because of its humanitarian mandate, the Working Group does not attribute individual or State responsibilities in cases of enforced disappearances or make judgment or issue sanctions.

            With its strengths and limitations, the Working Group, through its patient and persistent contacts with the Governments concerned, has prevented disappearances, although its preventive and deterrent role is difficult to quantify. It has been able to contribute to the clarification of cases and, especially within the framework of its urgent procedure, to save human lives. This encouraged the Commission on Human Rights, and more recently for the Human Rights Council, to continue to renew its mandate.

The crime of enforced disappearances is not new. Over the years, all regions in the world, at different times and to varying degrees, have seen it develop into a tool for political repression. Evidence has recently emerged that it has been used to counter terrorism. It is estimated that millions of persons have been direct victims of enforced disappearance and many more, families and relatives, still suffer the consequences of this crime. In my missions to the field I have been able to witness the damage it causes to the fabric of the societies, on the families and on the women and children in particular who often bear the weight of the absence of the breadwinner. For all these persons the Working Group remains a much-needed mechanism.

On this occasion, I believe, it is important to create a bridge between the Working Group and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. With its adoption by the General Assembly fours years ago, the international community unanimously recognized the need to guarantee individuals the non-derogable right not to be subject to enforced disappearance. The Convention requires States parties to criminalize the practice, and if it is fully implemented there should be no impunity for perpetrators. Importantly, the Convention affirms that enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity when practised in a widespread and systematic manner as defined in applicable international law. As a preventive measure the Convention also requires States to establish stringent safeguards in particular regarding detention and clearly prohibit secret detention. All possible victims, including relatives, are addressed by the Convention.  Article 24 clearly states that enforced disappearances create many more victims than the person who has been deprived of his or her liberty. These include relatives and any person who has suffered harm as a direct result of the enforced disappearance and are thus themselves recognized as direct victims. This article also guarantees the right to truth.

When it comes into force, a 10-member independent expert Committee on Enforced Disappearances will be established in accordance with the Convention to deal with cases that occurred in the State parties after its ratification. Building on the experience of the Working Group, this Committee will have a unique urgent humanitarian procedure allowing it to ask the authorities to search and find disappeared persons upon request of a relative. It will also have the extraordinary power to bring the widespread and systematic practice of enforced disappearance to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly.

The future relationship between the Working Group and the Committee-to-be will influence the extent to which greater protection and realization of rights of victims of enforced disappearance will be achieved. With their different features and working methods the two mechanisms should have complementary roles and functions and should cooperate to maximize efficiency and avoid duplication.

The primary obligation for implementation of the Convention is on States parties, but it is evident that the protection and promotion of the rights of those who were subject to enforced disappearance and their relatives will only be possible with the continued cooperation and active participation of intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and other sectors of civil society, such as representatives of national human rights institutions, experts, advocates and relatives themselves.

I congratulate Albania, Argentina, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Honduras, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Senegal, Spain and Uruguay for having ratified the Convention. Only one ratification or accession is needed to bring this important instrument into force. I therefore appeal today to all Member States, which have not done so, to ratify or accede to the Convention without delay and expressly recognize the competence of its monitoring mechanism, the Committee on Enforced Disappearance, to receive individual and inter-States communications.

I invite you now to watch a five-minute video produced by the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances in observance and memory of those whom we must hope are still alive, until we know the truth about their whereabouts. The question that comes to my mind, while watching these powerful images, is “where are they?” I am sure you will all do so hoping that their fates will be revealed very soon.

Thank you.