UN working group on enforced disappearances at 30

In 30 years, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has examined more than 50,000 cases of enforced disappearances from some 80 countries. This is only the tip of the iceberg in the actual number of disappeared.

Jenny Bettancourt’s father, Silvio Francisco, disappeared 37 years ago in Chile © OHCHR Photo/ Christine WambaaEnforced disappearances occur when, with the involvement of State authorities, a person is forcibly removed from public view and his or her whereabouts is intentionally undisclosed. As a consequence, victims are placed outside the protection of the law. In most cases, the only verifiable information provided will relate to the circumstances in which the victim was last seen alive and free.

Since the first cases of disappearances were reported in the 1970s in Latin America, the Working Group has assisted relatives ascertain the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared family members. It has established channels of communication between families and often reluctant State authorities in order to gather information on the victims. Although only 20 per cent of the cases have been resolved, the Working Group has been able to clarify cases, prevent disappearances and save lives.

A special event marked the anniversary where stories of victims and their families were told. The evolution of the role of the expert body was also discussed. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Kyung-wha Kang noted that over the years the practice of enforced disappearances had developed into a tool for political repression and recently under the guise of 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”, Kang added. “In my missions to the field I have been able to witness the damage this heinous practice 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.”

So far, 19 countries have ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. One more country is needed for the Convention to enter into force and trigger the creation of a committee to monitor Governments’ compliance with the Convention’s provisions.

“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 realized”, the Deputy High Commissioner said. “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.”

Gabriella Citroni, Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Milano-Bicocca highlighted issues for the future work of the WGEID including reparations for victims and their families, the right to identity for children wrongly removed from their families or communities, the right for relatives to preserve the historical memory of the disappeared and the application of forensic genetics to identify victims arbitrarily executed.

“Enforced disappearance can be a subject for legal debate and analysis. However, much before this, it is one of the most grave human rights violations and one of the most devastating tragedies in people’s lives”, Citroni said. “I am convinced that, as long as the Working Group and its Secretariat will be constituted not only by well-known experts and by highly qualified professionals, but also by sensitive men and women, there is a real chance for building a world free from enforced disappearance.”

Full statement by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

5 November 2010