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Committee on Enforced Disappearances opens fourth session

8 April 2013

The Committee on Enforced Disappearances this morning opened its fourth session, hearing statements by Gianni Magazzeni, Chief of the Americas and Europe and Central Asia Branch of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Emmanuel Decaux, Chairperson of the Committee, and adopting its agenda and programme of work. The Committee also heard from States parties, the International Committee of the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations.

Mr. Magezzeni said that even before the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enforced disappearances themselves had been both of great concern to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and an issue closely followed up by field presences. Unfortunately, some disturbing developments favouring impunity for past crimes could still be seen, as well as contemporary cases of enforced disappearances. Mr. Magazzeni thanked the Committee for its exemplary support for the treaty body strengthening process, and updated it on the General Assembly’s intergovernmental process on that subject.

Emmanuel Decaux, Chairperson of the Committee, said that the same sense of urgency with which the Convention entered into force two years ago brought them here today. One just had to look at the world today to realise that enforced disappearances were far from being a phenomenon relegated to the darkest hours of the twentieth century. No continent was spared. A priority of the United Nations and the international community as a whole, including non-governmental organizations, should be to encourage all Member States to ratify the Convention, beyond the 37 States already signed up. Beyond ratification, the assessment process – where a State submitted a report within two years of ratifying the Convention – was a positive obligation for States. The slowness of some States and the delays of others to submit their reports must not be allowed to disrupt the proper development of the Convention.

The Committee also heard brief statements from representatives of Belgium and Uruguay. It held a dialogue with the International Committee of the Red Cross which focused on the field of forensic identification of human remains, and on how to make the separate notions of enforced disappearances and of missing persons better understood. The Committee also heard submissions from two non-governmental organizations on working methods and on reporting obligations for States parties.

The Committee held a minute of silence in remembrance of victims of enforced disappearances.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 April when it will begin consideration of the first report of Uruguay (CED/C/URY/1). The Committee will begin examination of the initial report of France (CED/C/FRA/1) on Thursday, 11 April at 3 p.m.

Further information on the Committee and the session can be found at this link.

Opening Statements

GIANNI MAGAZZENI, Chief of the Americas and Europe and Central Asia Branch of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that even before the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enforced disappearances themselves had been both of great concern to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and an issue closely followed up by field presences. Many societies had at different times in history experienced the scourge; in particular during the 1970s and 1980s a number of Latin American countries witnessed systematic patterns of enforced disappearances. Unfortunately, some disturbing developments favouring impunity for past crimes could still be seen in that and other regions, as well as contemporary cases of enforced disappearances. For example, field presences of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala, Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries continued to follow up on recent cases, by both monitoring and playing an advocacy role. Contemporary cases of enforced disappearances had been particularly acute in Mexico, where State responsibility had been diverted by attributing the origin of the vast majority of cases to organized-crime struggles. There had also been failure to make a clear distinction, or keep accurate records between enforced disappearances and analogous cases. The role of field presences of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country had been of great value in raising awareness of the Convention, as well as by promoting legislation against enforced disappearances.

Mr. Magazzeni thanked the Committee for its exemplary support for the treaty body strengthening process, and updated it on the General Assembly’s intergovernmental process on the strengthening of the treaty body system, including issues discussed at the latest round of informal consultations which took place in New York on 19 to 20 February 2013. The next informal consultations would take place from 11 to 17 April, Mr. Magazzeni said, noting that Committee members would meet with the co-facilitators of the inter-governmental process next week in Geneva. Mr. Magazzeni concluded by assuring the Committee of the commitment of the High Commissioner and her staff to
provide all necessary support needed for it to accomplish its important work.

EMMANUEL DECAUX, Chairperson of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that the same sense of urgency with which the Convention entered into force two years ago brought them here today. Enforced disappearances were not only a phenomenon which the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances aimed to answer, but also the Committee. The notion of continuing crime gave meaning to the mission, but beyond that legal qualification it was the human tragedy of forced disappearances that motivated and inspired them. Mr. Decaux recalled the words of author Pierre Vidal-Naquet in his book L’affaire Audin, which was about one of the first cases of enforced disappearance, which occurred during the Battle of Algiers in 1957: "I did not realize that this crime was a crime without a body, and that as the body would not have been found and the circumstances of his death specified, it would remain a gaping hole, as a permanent indictment. The concealment of the crime permitted the investigation to be kept alive". One just had to look at the world today to realise that enforced disappearances were far from being a phenomenon relegated to the darkest hours of the twentieth century, he continued. No continent was spared.

The Chairperson noted that recently the European Court of Human Rights made two important judgements on cases in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Russia and Chechnya, that referred indirectly to the Convention. A priority of the United Nations and the international community as a whole, including non-governmental organizations, should be to encourage all Member States to ratify the Convention, beyond the 37 States already signed up, Mr. Decaux said. He added that he was pleased the Committee had planned its first workshop in Africa (organized with the cooperation of the High Commissioner and The Organisation Francophonie).

Beyond ratification, the assessment process – where a State submitted a report within two years of ratifying the Convention – was a positive obligation for States. It was both an obligation of means as well as an obligation of outcomes. In that regard it must be
noted that only four of the 20 States concerned had so far upheld that obligation: Uruguay, France, Spain and Argentina – while Germany and others were currently preparing their reports. The public reviews of Uruguay and France scheduled for this session would hopefully demonstrate a good example and establish a training exercise for States, Mr. Decaux said. However, the slowness of some States and the delays of others to submit their reports must not be allowed to disrupt the proper development of the Convention. The effectiveness and advocacy of the Committee would be called into question if the inertia lasted beyond a couple of months. The requirement of accountability was the starting point for any type of monitoring. The Committee must invest in a dynamic, functioning mood and be flexible in setting aside a cumbersome system of periodic reports.

Furthermore, the Committee relied on non-governmental organizations to a great extent to flag priority situations and submit useful information. Mr. Decaux added that the Committee had been contacted directly by a number of non-governmental organizations that transmitted serious information. Also, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances itself had informed the Committee that it had been alerted to one situation in a State party; the outcome of their joint efforts in working together would feature in the Annual Report.

In conclusion, Mr. Decaux said that the fourth session would be a test, vis a vis the parties concerned, and the Committee hoped to be flexible in terms of field visits. The Convention provided a set of legal certainties for States and guarantees for victims. States parties had everything to gain by ratifying the Convention in order to provide ‘risk assurance’ for the future and to draw upon the lessons of the past. He hoped that the session would be particularly productive, fruitful and exemplary, and allow the Committee to move forward.

Dialogue with States Parties

Belgium took the floor to say his country would soon prepare its country report, and to express his support for the work of the Committee. An Expert from the Belgium Ministry for Justice would visit Geneva on 11 and 12 April, and would seek to approach Committee members for initial informal conversations on how Belgium could best begin to prepare its report.

Uruguay said the Convention on Enforced Disappearances was very important, both for Uruguay and all of humanity. Uruguay had given it major priority and was glad to be presenting its report tomorrow. It hoped to be able to use the Committee’s recommendations to improve its record on dealing with enforced disappearances.

Meeting with United Nations Bodies, Specialized Agencies and Other
Inter-governmental Organizations

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said there had already been very effective collaboration between the Committee and ICRC. ICRC believed it was important to recall the links between enforced disappearances and missing persons, upon which ICRC was particularly active. It was also important to avoid any misunderstanding in tackling those two notions – of enforced disappearances and of missing persons – ICRC would always be very willing to participate in any campaign of sensitization in making those notions better understood. Secondly, from the viewpoint of ICRC, it was particularly important that States became party to the Convention. It contained three pillars: prevention, accountability and reparations, and ICRC was always willing to work with States to help them put their domestic framework in line with both the Convention and international humanitarian law. Finally, ICRC was equipped with advisory services not only in Geneva but also in the field; legal advisers were always willing to work with States in that regard. States were strongly advised to get in touch with ICRC either in Geneva or in the field in order to exchange information on that important issue.

EMMANUEL DECAUX, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked ICRC for their political and technical support, and for their wider support of the Convention. He praised a recent workshop on technical support held jointly by the Committee and ICRC, and hoped that their working relationship would continue.

A Committee member commented that a challenging area for many States was to develop a way of dealing with both isolated disappearances and systematic disappearances. It would be helpful for the Committee and ICRC to develop standards in that area, for instance on how human remains were identified.

The International Committee of the Red Cross replied that the field of forensic identification was absolutely a field where they could work together. States were developing various practices in the field of identification of remains; it was a key area. ICRC had to be particularly sensitive to the specifics of each case, but would be happy to further exchanges with the Committee.

Meeting with Non-Governmental Organizations

Geneva for Human Rights said the statement delivered this morning by the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights showed that the people who wrote it did not really understand the work of the Committee. For example, this Committee did not have a problem with backlog, as it was dealing only with initial reports. The Committee’s challenge was in establishing a working dialogue with States parties. The treaty body conversations in Geneva were far too focused on finances and working methods, rather than the programme.

EMMANUEL DECAUX, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked the speaker, and said they did not want to have short monitoring cycles. There were 10 treaty bodies, and the
annual meeting of the Chairpersons of those treaty bodies was very helpful in discussing the distinctive features of each treaty body. To enhance the effectiveness of the Convention the Committee had to find its own proper dynamic, as well as keeping concerned parties appraised of new information as it occurred. For example, if a State made a relevant announcement during its Universal Periodic Review, the Committee needed to be informed of it. Information had to be synergised.

The Observatory for Human Rights and Peace spoke about the forthcoming report of Spain (to be reviewed in November 2013), which would pertain exclusively to enforced disappearances that had occurred after December 2010, which was the date in which the Convention entered into force. An estimated 1,500 alleged cases of enforced disappearances had taken place in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the repressive Franco period afterwards, and it seemed they would not be dealt with in Spain’s report. The Committee should ask Spain a number of questions about those historic cases many of which constituted crimes against humanity. The Committee should also ask Spain about their obligations under the Convention to the right of the victim to know the truth, and the right of victims to reparation.

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