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Statement for the Opening of the WGEID 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Enforced Disappearances, delivered by the Deputy High Commissioner

Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
The 20th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

‘20 years of the Declaration: Looking Back and Looking Forward’

Exploring best practices and challenges to protect women
from enforced disappearance and its impact

Geneva, 30 October 2012

Distinguished Members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances,
Distinguished Panellists,
Colleagues and Friends,

I am honoured to be part of today’s event which marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. It also builds on the commemorative event on the 30th anniversary of the Working Group in 2010, in which I also participated.

I would like to express my deep admiration for the distinguished members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, whose dedication and hard work have sustained us in the long and arduous fight against enforced disappearances.

I would also like to extend my appreciation to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie for its collaboration in the organization of this event, and for its support to OHCHR and the Working Group in general. OHCHR has built a close working relationship with the OIF which we hope will continue to strengthen.
I welcome all the distinguished panellists who come from various regions of the world, among whom are activists who have dedicated their lives to the fight against enforced disappearances. Your commitment to confronting disappearance and bringing truth and justice to the victims has brought us this far, to our gathering today: this event salutes your tireless efforts.

Colleagues and Friends,

As the Declaration which we celebrate today early states ‘any act of enforced disappearance’ is an ‘offence to human dignity’ that denies the very purpose of the Charter of the United Nations and violates the fundamental freedoms prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration also lays down a clear obligation for States indicating that ‘no State shall practise, permit or tolerate enforced disappearances.’ Unfortunately, however, enforced disappearance is not a practice of the past. It continues to take place even as we meet in various parts of the world. Clearly, we must redouble our resolve to rid humanity of this scourge.

I congratulate the Working Group for choosing a fitting theme for the first day of this humanity of this commemorative event – namely best practices and challenges in relation to protecting the human rights of women in the context of enforced disappearances. The session tomorrow morning is devoted to an open dialogue with Member States on best practices and challenges in the implementation of the Declaration. I am confident that this dialogue will provide both Member States and the Working Group a further opportunity to discuss, frankly and constructively, ways to enhance implementation of the Declaration, including by reflecting on the progress made to date and key lessons learned.

With regard to the focus of today’s event, we acknowledge the particular effect on women as the result of the disappearance of close family members, when they are left to shoulder the social and economic impact resulting from the disappearance of the family’s main breadwinner. In societies where gender-based discrimination in laws and policies hinders the full realization of the human rights of women and limits their autonomy and participation in aspects of public and political life, the social and economic impact of disappearances is felt more strongly and, in turn, renders women and their children more vulnerable to exploitation and social marginalization. The psychological and emotional trauma caused by the disappearance of a loved one, and not knowing that her/his fate and whereabouts is considered to meet the definition of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by several human rights bodies. The Human Rights Committee has concluded that the anguish and distress suffered by close family members of the disappeared constituted a violation of the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment enshrined in article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Although enforced disappearance is frequently considered a violation predominantly affecting men, women themselves are increasingly subjected to enforced disappearances because of their role in political or civil life, their religious or other beliefs, or because of their family or personal connections. Recent commissions of inquiry have highlighted how women have been arbitrarily arrested, detained and subjected to enforced disappearances as a result of their participation in peaceful protests. The Working Group has highlighted the fact that women are at risk of sexual and other violence when subjected to enforced disappearances.

But it is important not to consider women solely as victims. Many have played a central role in the fight against enforced disappearances. Indeed, it is thanks to the courage and struggle of women that many years ago, notably in Latin America, the heinous crime of enforced disappearance was brought to the attention of the international community. Women continue to be at the forefront of the struggle to prevent enforced disappearance and I am honoured that some of these activists are with us here today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we explore best practices to protect women from enforced disappearance and its impact, it is crucial to take into account the interplay between disappearances and related human rights violations and gender-based discrimination.

As we have learned from recent conflicts, cultural and societal discriminatory norms and stereotypical attitudes which subordinate women in society and invest men with the responsibility to protect the safety and “honour” of women have been used to humiliate communities and destroy social and family bonds. This has had long term effects on peace and reconciliation. Effectively protecting women from gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, a broader context in which concerted efforts are made to promote equality between women and men in all spheres of life. This is also crucial to address the socio-economic impact of enforced disappearances and ensure that women’s perspectives are fully taken into account throughout history in the development of laws, policies and practices addressing this crime.

In this regard, I would like to emphasize the importance of strengthening synergies among the Working Group and other international human rights mechanisms, which address the human rights of women, in particular the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – CEDAW – using its Convention and the Declaration as key points of reference. The Committee which oversees the implementation of the Convention is working on a number of general recommendations, including on women in conflict and post conflict situations and access to justice, and your discussions today should feed into this work. In addition, the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, which was established by the Human Rights Council two years ago, tasked to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to women in their implementation or impact, is paying particular attention to some key components of the fight against enforced disappearances. These include identifying legal measures but also societal and cultural attitudes and practices which constitute obstacles for women to access justice and looking at good practices through which women have been granted reparations through courts’ decisions. There would be much synergy to be generated through the close cooperation between the Working Group and these two bodies.

Colleagues and Friends,

We all have a responsibility to be actors for change: change in legal and policy frameworks that discriminate against women; change in the status quo that perpetuates impunity; and change in the lives held in limbo while waiting, with no end in sight, to learn of the fate of the disappeared loved ones.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is committed to supporting the Working Group and others in the protection and promotion of women’s rights in the fight against enforced disappearances. A number of our activities are of direct relevance in this context: we want to promote gender sensitive constitutions and legislation; strengthen national capacities to ensure that women have access to justice; promote women’s political participation and equal access to economic, social and cultural rights. OHCHR also works with civil society, including women’s groups, to strengthen capacity to claim women’s rights at the national and international levels. I look forward to the outcome of this discussion today which will inform the Office’s advocacy and programmatic work.

I wish you fruitful deliberations and thank you for your kind attention.