”Enforced disappearances are becoming a major human rights concern in Asia,” read the news radio announcer. “Estimated tens of thousands have been disappeared.”
The structure of that last sentenced grated on the inner copy-editor in me. “…Have been disappeared,” is markedly passive. “By whom?” I want to ask, but the uncertainty of the subject is part of the nature of enforced disappearances. The answer is: we don’t often know.
If someone is enforced, or involuntarily, disappeared, they are just that – they are gone, but no one knows to where. It is likely that they have been killed, but no one knows when or where they are buried. It is possible that they have been tortured, but no one knows if they are OK.
In countries around the world, state officials, such as police, military or other security officials, arrest and detain individuals without their families’ knowledge of their whereabouts or well-being. They are outside of the arms of the law, often tortured, often killed, and rarely found again. They simply disappear, and their families are always left to wonder what happened to their loved one.
According to a 2012 report from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, 53,778 cases have been reported since 1980. Over 42,000 of these cases, in 82 states, remain unsolved. When a person is secretly abducted, detained or killed by a state agent, this constitutes the human rights violation of enforced disappearance. Like torture, The victims are often tortured while secretly detained.
Such practices were common during the dictatorships in Latin America around the 1970s and 1980s. In Argentina, an estimated 30,000 disappeared, and only recently, with the help of forensic NGOs, have families received the remains of those missing for more than three decades.
Enforced disappearances — like torture — happen in secrecy, between four walls. As Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, wrote in the 2012 Global Reading, “Prison walls have a double function: to lock people in and the public out.” Not only are family members kept from the knowledge of their loved ones whereabouts, but justice cannot find the disappeared. Not seeing and not knowing means there is little recourse for justice and impunity remains.
With no record of the disappeared, how can you label the crime? Was the person tortured? Were they killed? Who is responsible? Without evidence, it is difficult to find and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. In countries such as Mexico, Bolivia, Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, China, and the US, few have been held to account for the thousands of victims of enforced disappearance.
Bringing these crimes to light and ensuring the public remains aware when someone is disappeared is our role, but everyone can help. Our voice is one of the strongest weapons against these crimes and a strong challenge to the reign of impunity.