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Enforced disappearances still a major human rights challenge 30 years on

Over the past 30 years, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has brought to the former Commission on Human Rights and now the Human Rights Council around 50,000 cases of enforced disappearances from some 80 countries.

Behind a wooden panel, a secret passage led to a clandestine prison  - OHCHREnforced 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.

This was the challenge facing the international community when the first disappearance cases were reported in the early 1970s first in Chile , under military dictatorship at the time, and soon after in Argentina , Guatemala , the Philippines , Cyprus and other countries.

The decision by the General Assembly to condemn the practice of “enforced or involuntary disappearances” in December 1978 was one of the first steps that led to the creation of the Working Group in 1980 by the former Commission on Human Rights. The Working Group was given a clear mandate to establish channels of communication between the families and State authorities in order to gather information on the victims. A historic milestone had been passed and the first UN thematic special procedure was established.

Patrick Rice, an Irish victim of enforced disappearance and former Executive Secretary of the Latin American Federation for Relatives of the Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM) from 1981 to 1987, recalls the beginnings of the Working Group's intervention in Latin America . “I was privileged to have participated in the first dialogues between the relatives of FEDEFAM and the WGEID. Many times I had to explain my own experience as a survivor of such an experience in Argentina in October 1976, thanks to the intervention of my Ambassador, while the families and mothers explained their endless efforts to get news. It was not easy for them to understand but they listened to our stories and in that way could begin to comprehend the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. That ongoing dialogue is at the basis for the main achievements of WGEID.”

The Working Group contributed to the adoption of a clear definition concentrating on disappearances by State actors and to a comprehensive analysis of the human rights involved including the right to life, liberty, personal integrity, a fair judicial process and welfare of the family.

In 1992, the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the General Assembly and key elements such as the continuous nature of the crime of enforced disappearance were developed.

“What always impacts me when I hear relatives tell the story of the enforced disappearance of their loved one, is their focus or even obsession with the last moment when that person was taken”, says Rice.” In fact that threshold moment is when their normal life ends and their anguished search to know the fate of their loved one begins.”

Even though positive results with the reappearance of victims who are alive are rare, their significance can never be underestimated. In March 2010, Francisco Madariaga, a 32 year old Argentine, was reunited with his father Abel for the first time. Francisco was born during the captivity of his mother Silvia Monica Quintela in a clandestine detention centre and then appropriated under a false identity by a military officer and his family. The WGEID had filed petitions for her and her baby but also for many disappeared children of Argentina . 

On 20 December 2006, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the General Assembly. The Working Group has argued through the years of the need for a new international instrument to effectively combat disappearances. On receiving the necessary ratifications, the Convention will soon come into force with its corresponding monitoring body the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.

“Looking today at what is happening especially in the so-called war on terror, we have reason to be concerned as many practices associated with enforced disappearances appear in the news”, Patrick Rice said. “That is why it is so important not only to look at cases that have happened in the past but are going on right now under our own eyes. The WGEID special procedure has a vital humanitarian role to play in the most critical issues facing human rights today.”

A panel discussion will take place on Thursday 17 March at Palais des Nations to kick-off commemorations for the 30 th anniversary of the WGEID.

16 March 2010