French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) at the Elysee presidential Palace on December 7, 2020 in Paris, for a meeting as part of al-Sisi's a three-day controversial state visit to France, with activists warning Paris not to turn a blind eye to Cairo's rights record with a red carpet welcome.(Bertrand GUAY / AFP)
Seven decades and two years ago, on 10 December 1948, the international community adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). A major lesson of the Second World War, this document signifies a sacred vow never again to allow such atrocities to be repeated. It complements the UN Charter with a protocol to guarantee the rights of everyone. While not a binding instrument, the UDHR has inspired more than 60 human rights instruments that constitute an international human rights standard.
One of the core human rights treaties is the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, whose 10th anniversary of its entry into force is commemorated this year. It has been signed by 98 states and ratified by 63. Among many other pro-victim provisions are the right to truth and the non-derogable right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance. While a significant number of Latin American states which explicitly admitted their dark history of disappearances are party to this treaty, many states that have ongoing cases of enforced disappearances refuse to ratify it.
The 72nd anniversary of the UDHR and the 10th year since the entry into force of the anti-disappearance treaty are commemorated when the world is being confronted with the worst pandemic ever that, as of December 9, has claimed 1,565,246 lives.
One of the most vulnerable sectors affected by this global crisis are the families of the disappeared. This situation prompted the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (UN CED) to adopt Key Guidelines on COVID 19 and Enforced Disappearances.This document is a recognition that the pandemic is exacerbating the already battered lives of victims of disappearances. It gives, among other things, consideration to the situation of women and children and enforced disappearances in the context of migration and is an explicit reminder to states of the non-derogable right of everyone not to be subjected to enforced disappearance; of the imperative of searching for the disappeared in the best ways possible; of the prohibition to use the pandemic to restrict measures to search for the victims, and of the importance of empowering families of the victims, especially in these difficult times.
On this significant occasion, it is meaningful to remember the world’s families of the disappeared who are victimized by one of the cruelest forms of human rights violations. Notwithstanding their countries of origin and their social and economic standing, they continue to suffer from the uncertainty of the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.
In South Asia, the situation of families of the disappeared is bleaker than ever.
Om Prakash, director of Advocacy Forum, one of Nepal’s biggest human rights organizations that submitted the highest number of cases of enforced disappearances to the UN in 2004, shares about the families’ worsening poverty resulting in starvation, sickness, inability to participate in activities that demand justice and to get updates on their cases from the Commission of Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons.
The same is true of Sri Lanka, where families of the disappeared are affected by loss of income brought about by the pandemic. Hence, according to Shantha Pathirana, secretary-general of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, whose twin brother, Sudath Pathirana, disappeared 31 years ago on 10 December 1989, “we are pressuring the government to implement the recommendations of the Office of Missing Persons, which provide a monthly allowance of LKR 6,000 ($32) for the families of the disappeared. Unfortunately, the government uses the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for non-implementation of the recommendation.”
In the far-distant Central American country of Guatemala, while generally the families of the disappeared have not been infected with the virus, there is a permanent calamity in the country. A large number of quarantines and months of curfew and state of siege have severely denied the families of the disappeared the capacity to generate economic resources, thus worsening the poverty.
Marco Antonio Garavito Fernandez, director of the Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental, an organization that has reunified 510 disappeared children with their biological parents relates: “There have been two hurricanes that hit the country. These damaged many families who lost homes due to flooding and landslides. These hit them more than the pandemic.
“In the process of searching for disappeared children and reunifying them with their biological families, we were able to do only two family reunions. We planned to do five, but it was not possible to do all due to unnecessary restrictions of the authorities. The government took advantage of the pandemic to abolish the remaining institutions created by the Peace Accords, such as the National Compensation Program, the Secretary of Peace and the Presidential Commission on Human Rights. The victims no longer have the means to demand truth and justice, except through the Human Rights Ombudsman. Despite such limitations, we are working on 25 cases of enforced disappearances.”
In these trying times, the families of the disappeared are only a microcosm of the multi-sectors of society that suffer the pangs of the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Multiplied by several sectors affected by the pandemic, the magnitude of human suffering is unimaginable.
On this 72nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michel Bachelet, in an official statement, says: “To recover better means of strengthening our commitment to human rights and to achieving the goals set out in the Sustainable Development Agenda. It means fixing inequalities within and among countries; creating universal health and social protection systems; addressing environmental degradation; strengthening institutions; and tackling structural human rights violations, which have fed the spread and severity of Covid-19. It means urgently addressing the climate emergency and creating a world that is just, inclusive and equal – and therefore more resilient and prepared to meet future crises.” She strongly believes that, "Working together, we can recover better. With strong solidarity, we can build a world that is more resilient, sustainable and just."
With ardent hope, we believe that a world without human rights violations is possible.
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is the president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.