Enforced disappearances continue to be one of the worst human rights violations. In the words of Jeremy Sarkin, who chairs the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: ‘While many people think this is a practice of the past, it has become a global problem affecting all continents of the world … the practice ‘turns humans into non-humans.’
Previously, enforced disappearances were the product of military dictatorships, but nowadays they are ‘perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents,’ says Sarkin.
Sarkin adds that the practice is still severely underreported due to a lack of knowledge about the international human rights system, lack of access to it and obstacles faced by victims’ families in obtaining redress.
As provided for in the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 and came into force on 23 December 2010, thefive-member Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is mandated to assist the relatives of disappeared persons by ascertaining their fate and whereabouts, as well as to act as a conduit between the families and governments concerned.
The Convention defines an enforced disappearance as the arrest, detention, abduction or other form of deprivation of liberty by the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the whereabouts of the disappeared person.
Since its creation by the UN Commission on Human Rights on 29 February in 1980, the Working Group has dealt with more than 50,000 cases in over 80 countries. It seeks to set up a communication channel between families and concerned governments to make sure that cases are investigated to clarify the whereabouts of people who, having disappeared, are deemed to be outside the protection of the law.
The Group has voiced its concern at the measures being taken by Governments while countering terrorism and the implications for enforced disappearances, and stressed that arrests committed during military operations, arbitrary detentions and extraordinary renditions ‘can amount to enforced disappearances.’
While enforced disappearance affects many people worldwide, it has a particular impact on women and children, according to the Working Group, which noted that women often bear the brunt of the economic hardships that accompany a disappearance.
The Group notes that when women are victims of disappearance themselves, they are particularly vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence. Also, the disappearance of a child, or the loss of a parent as a consequence of enforced disappearance, is a serious violation of the rights of the child.
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Cleophas Tsokodayi is the author of Namibia’s Independence Struggle.