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Disappearances bring human suffering beyond imagination

As the UN marks the anniversary of its treaty on enforced disappearance, more Asian countries must ratify the convention

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Manila

Updated: December 21, 2020 05:13 AM GMT
Disappearances bring human suffering beyond imagination

Pattiyo Sohman holds a photo of her missing son Fadel, who was abducted near a school in southern Thailand by unknown assailants in 2016. (Photo: Abby Seiff) 

The annual reports of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (UNWGEID), a thematic body under the UN Human Rights Council established in 1980 to respond to increasing cases of enforced disappearances, speak of the global magnitude of the problem. Notwithstanding under-reporting, UNWGEID has 46,271 active cases from 92 states. 

This phenomenon does not only speak of cold statistics but of the consequent human suffering that this very cruel form of human rights violation brings to the immediate victims, to their families and greater society. The deprivation of life and basic liberties, the uncertainty of the fate and whereabouts of the victims, the fear of death, the pain of waiting, and the social and economic devastation on the families result in human suffering that is beyond imagination.

The global phenomenon of enforced disappearances has compelled the international community to establish the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This treaty, which is one of the core UN international rights treaties, will commemorate the 14th anniversary of its adoption by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 23 and a decade of its implementation in 2021 after Iraq deposited the 20th instrument of ratification to the UN secretary-general. 

The convention first and foremost declares the non-derogability of the right of a person not to be subjected to enforced disappearance. Article 1, Section 1 states that: “No one shall be subjected to enforced disappearances; Section 2: No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance."

This treaty, claimed by victims as the victims’ treaty, is not just a product of the minds of diplomats and legal luminaries. It stems from true-to-life stories of victims. The project of an international treaty against enforced disappearances was first dreamed of by the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM) during its first congress in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 1981. 

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Insisting on international recognition of the gravity of the crime and of its global magnitude, families of the disappeared worldwide persisted in campaigning for the establishment of a global treaty with an independent monitoring body, which is now the UN Committee Against Enforced Disappearances (UNCED). 

I am fortunate to have actively and consistently participated in all sessions of the treaty’s drafting and negotiation process in Geneva. Not only did I witness the alignments of UN states with varying interests but it was also an opportunity to join the NGO community in bringing the victims’ voices before the community of nations.

It was a memorable occasion to be in unison with representatives of families of the disappeared in various parts of the world such as Marta Ocampo de Vasquez of Argentina, Loyola Guzman of Bolivia, Irina Krasovskaya of Belarus, Nasserra Dotour of Algeria, Abdeslam Omar of Western Sahara and many more.

With the steadfast determination of families of victims worldwide, the wholehearted support of international NGOs and UN members, on Sept. 23, 2005, in Room Xll of the Palais des Nations, the late French ambassador, His Excellency Bernard Kessedjian, banged his gavel and announced the text of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as final.

Dedicated to the late Marta Ocampo de Vasquez, former president of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Linea Fundadora, and to all the other families of the desaparecidos, the convention is the bitter-sweet fruit of the struggle of all families of the disappeared to attain a world without desaparecidos.

The substance and spirit of the treaty place the premium on the rights of victims and responsibilities of states to prevent their recurrence and to punish the perpetrators. By dint of the families' active role during the drafting and negotiation process, the convention has ample pro-victim provisions including:

— For the purposes of this convention, "victim" means the disappeared person and any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance;

— Each victim has the right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person. Each state Pparty shall take appropriate measures in this regard;

— Each state party shall take all appropriate measures to search for, locate and release disappeared persons and, in the event of death, to locate, respect and return their remains;

— Each state party shall ensure in its legal system that the victims of enforced disappearance have the right to obtain reparation and prompt, fair and adequate compensation;

— The right to obtain reparation referred to in paragraph 4 of this article covers material and moral damages and, where appropriate, other forms of reparation such as: a) restitution; b) rehabilitation; c) satisfaction, including restoration of dignity and reputation; d) guarantees of non-repetition.

Fourteen years have passed since the adoption of the convention by the the UN General Assembly in December 2006. Out of the 193 UN member states, only 63 are parties to the treaty and 98 are signatories — a figure that is far from universal ratification and implementation.

Asia, which has the highest number of cases submitted to the UN, has the least number of ratifications. Sadly, the number of cases of enforced disappearances is increasing with each passing day, a situation which, in many ways, is exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about the value of the convention, the former director of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos of El Salvador, Ester Alvarenga, said: “The ratification of the convention is of vital importance because it recognizes the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. This recognition obliges state parties to assume the responsibility of searching and finding, and also dignifies the victims who have been stigmatized and judged for their struggle. What is most important is that it adopts mechanisms for non-repetition of acts committed in the past. Ratifying international instruments generates hope for the change of governments’ attitude in the aspect of human rights.”

On the anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the convention, humanity is celebrating the Christmas season. For families of the disappeared, the most precious gift they are longing to receive is the long-awaited return of their disappeared loved ones. The convention, if ratified and implemented by states, could make a huge difference — to prevent future cases from occurring, bring perpetrators to justice and facilitate possible long-cherished reunifications.

Respect the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances. Ratify the convention NOW.

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.

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