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New impetus to eradicate enforced disappearances

Estela Carlotto’s daughter Laura, disappeared in November 1977, at the time of the military dictatorship in Argentina. She was three months pregnant. Her remains were eventually returned to her family but Laura’s son, born in detention in 1978, remains disappeared.

Family members desperate to know the truth hold photographs of their disappeared loved ones © ICRC/HEGER, BorisEstela spent the past 33 years searching for her grandson as well as other children who disappeared in Argentina following the military coup in 1976. "I am looking for my grandson who should be 33 years old and I do not know where he is,” she said. “And that is what gets me involved in the world struggle against the enforced disappearances of persons.”

Estela is President and one of the founders of the Asociación Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo - Association of Plaza de Mayo Grandmothers - an organization established in 1978 in response to the forced or involuntary disappearance of hundreds of children during that period.

“Everywhere in the world, families of the disappeared go through continuous emotional and material hardship and years of uncertainty as to the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang.

Enforced disappearance occurs when, with the involvement of State authorities, a person is arrested, detained, abducted and his or her whereabouts is intentionally undisclosed.

Among the developments in the fight against enforced disappearances is the proclamation of 30 August as the UN International Day of the Disappeared. This year is the first time on this day that the UN pays tribute not only to those who disappeared but also to their families and friends. Indeed, a disappearance has a doubly paralysing impact : on the victims, frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives, and on their families, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones, their emotions alternating between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come.

On 23 December 2010, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force.

“The Convention,” Kang said, “is the first universal human rights instrument that, in a language echoing the absolute prohibition against torture, stipulates categorically that “No one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance.”

“This landmark Convention,” Kang explained, “provides a solid international framework to criminalize enforced disappearance and, hopefully, an impetus for prosecuting perpetrators before international institutions as well as national courts exercising universal jurisdiction.”

Its entry into force was followed by the establishment of a Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The Committee will monitor the enforcement of the Convention by the States parties. Independent and impartial, it will have the power to receive complaints from or on behalf of victims when the national authorities fail to fulfil their obligations.
The Committee on Enforced Disappearance and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, established in 1980, will have complementary roles and functions and will cooperate to maximize their efficiency in the struggle against enforced disappearances.

Until recently the Working Group was the only UN mechanism to deal with the issue of enforced disappearances. The Group acts as a channel of communication between the families of the victims and States to ensure that individual cases are investigated. There are more than 50,000 outstanding cases of enforced disappearances. Over the past five years, the Working Group has been able to clarify 1,814 cases. The task is daunting.

Enforced disappearance has become a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances are now often perpetrated during internal conflicts, especially as a means of political repression of opponents. Of particular concern is the on-going harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance; the use by States of counter-terrorism activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations, and the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearance.

30 August 2011