UN virtual meeting gives victims chance to be heard


On 4 May 2020, it had been 5 years, 10 months and 26 days since Maria Nohemí Barbosa González last saw her son, John Alexander.

Photographs of missing persons exhibited in Cali, Colombia, during the commemoration of the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, on 30 August 2019. © EPA/Ernesto Guzman Jr

He came with her to visit the island of San Andrés, off the northwest coast of Colombia, to celebrate her birthday. They arrived on Friday, 6 June 2014. The next day, her son, who was 32 at the time, disappeared -- carrying no money, cell phone, suitcase or valuables, save the room key.

Maria Nohemí reported John Alexander’s disappearance to local and national authorities in Colombia, but, she said, no one heard her; no one helped. Then, she approached the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.

On 27 March 2015, Maria Nohemí submitted a request for urgent action to the Committee on her son’s disappearance. Within 48 hours, the Committee had analysed her petition, asked for additional information and registered the Urgent Action request. The Committee then sent a note to the State calling for immediate action to search and find John Alexander.

“And since then, the Committee continues to support me,” Maria Nohemí said. “Whenever they receive information from the State, they share it with me. Whenever I send them a question, they respond very quickly. Whenever I ask for their support, they do it when they think it's okay to do it. And if not, they explain to me why they can't do it. They continue to send recommendations to the State to take action to find my son and to investigate his case.”

Maria Nohemí told her story as part of the opening of the 18th Session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. This was a meeting with a difference: physical distancing requirements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made this the first time any of the treaty body mechanism has hosted a virtual session opening.

Yet, the significance of the virtual meeting is not the format, but the message that the Committee sent, said Ibrahim Salama, chief of the Human Rights Treaties Branch of UN Human Rights. The Convention on Enforced Disappearances is clear: no exceptional circumstances can be invoked to justify enforced disappearances, he said. This principle applies during the pandemic.

“By taking this step, despite the huge efforts and concessions it has required, the Committee is demonstrating that the Convention remains a reality for all States and for all victims of this heinous crime, whatever the circumstances,” Salama said.

Organising the virtual session presented various technical, logistical and other challenges, said Committee Chair Mohammed Ayat. The 10 members of the Committee had to be organised across multiple time zones from Peru to Japan. No simultaneous interpretation was available, so parts of the meeting had consecutive interpretation, while the majority was held in English.

Being online in such circumstances also required postponing the interactive dialogues with States that were scheduled for the session. Currently, there is no option available to the Committee to do this that meets technical, quality and security requirements.

In the meantime, “our message is clear: victims of enforced disappearance must know that, while the pandemic can make some situations more difficult, the Committee is still available to assist”, Ayat said.

“The urgency caused by the health crisis in no way weakens this commitment and availability. On the contrary, it makes them stronger than ever. Victims should therefore not hesitate to request the intervention of the Committee, including through the urgent actions procedure.”

For Maria Nohemí, this continued access to the Committee has helped her feel supported and befriended in her quest to find what happened to her son.

“The assistance of the Committee doesn’t solve all problems,” she said. “But it gives another dimension to my son’s case. I am confident that the Committee will not leave me until we know where John Alexander is.”

Watch the opening of the virtual 18th Session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances here.

6 May 2020

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