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UN rights chief hails coming into force of new treaty on disappearances

GENEVA (24 November 2010) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday hailed the coming into force of a landmark new human rights treaty designed to deter the practice of enforced disappearance, punish its practitioners and protect its victims. After Iraq became the 20th State to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance on 23 November 2010, it will officially come into force 30 days later on 23 December 2010.

“An important legal gap in international human rights legislation has been filled in the fight against enforced disappearance, one of the most serious and distressing crimes on the international stage,” Pillay said. “This ground-breaking Convention provides a solid international framework to put an end to impunity and pursue justice, and as a result will hopefully have a significant deterrent effect. It should provide the friends and relatives of victims a significant boost in their efforts to find out what happened to their loved ones. The pain of not knowing, sometimes for decades, whether someone is healthy or suffering, or even dead or alive, is excruciating – almost a form of torture in itself.”

The 45-article Convention outlaws enforced disappearance without exception, stating unequivocally that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.” (Article 1)

“No one,” it says, “shall be held in secret detention” (Art. 17); and States that have ratified the Convention shall hold criminally responsible “any person who commits, orders, solicits or induces the commission of, attempts to commit, is an accomplice to or participates in an enforced disappearance.” (Art. 6)

The Convention also states (Art. 5) that “the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity.” Crimes against humanity are one of the most serious of international crimes, and along with war crimes, are not subject to a statute of limitations.

The Convention also recognizes the right of the victim (the disappeared person and any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of the disappearance) to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person. It also calls on States to take appropriate steps to protect complainants, witnesses, relatives of the disappeared individuals, their defense counsel and investigators.

The Convention obliges the States that have ratified it to “make the offence of enforced disappearance punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account its extreme seriousness” (Art. 7), and to take the necessary measures to bring their national jurisdiction into line with the Convention, including by making enforced disappearance an offence under their national criminal law. It also sets out the obligation of competent authorities to examine allegations of enforced disappearance promptly and impartially.

The Convention, adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 2006, had to be ratified by 20 States before it came into force. In addition to those 20 States (Albania, Argentina, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Honduras, Iraq, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Senegal, Spain and Uruguay), a further 70 States have taken the preliminary step of signing it, signaling their intention to ratify it at some point in the future.

“I urge all Governments to follow the first 20 States’ example by signing and ratifying this very important Convention as soon as possible,” the High Commissioner said. “By doing so, they may help save lives both now and in the future.”

The implementation of the Convention will be monitored and assessed by a Committee composed of ten independent and impartial experts with recognized competence in the field of human rights who will serve in their individual capacity.

(*): Check the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/pdf/disappearance-convention.pdf

Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx

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Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights - Media Unit
Rupert Colville, Spokesperson: + 41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org
Xabier Celaya, Information Officer: + 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org