Finally tackling the threat of ‘disappearance’

In Paris, about 60 countries have signed an international convention protecting people from forced disappearance. Family members of the victims, with support from France and Argentina, had been struggling for over a quarter of a century to have the convention adopted.

Disappearances became headline news in the 1970s and 80s, during the military dictatorships that ruled Argentina and other South American countries. But in other countries, human rights activists and government opponents continue to vanish. Since 1980, more than 50,000 people have disappeared in 90 countries. 40,000 are still missing.

Like torture
The numbers may appear small compared to other human rights violations, but the issue is pressing, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour: “The phenomenon is atrocious. There are people who are still looking for their family members 20 years later. What’s so invidious about disappearances is the secrecy, literally. It’s like torture. It has no visibility.”

More forceful
The United Nations has already adopted various declarations on the issue of disappearances, but this convention is much more forceful, equating disappearances in some instances to crimes against humanity. It prohibits the abduction and disappearance of people under all circumstances, even in the so-called war against terror. The convention for instance bans the secret detention centres run by the United States.

Washington has decided not to sign the convention, at least for the time being, but UN High Commissioner Arbour is more worried about other nations. “I think the real difficulty we have is with member states who don’t sign, who don’t ratify anything and have a totally closed door policy. This is not the case with America. There are lots of international instruments that they don’t ratify for reasons that I don’t agree with, but it’s their prerogative. We have to hope that on this agenda like on many others they will be a very serious participant.”

Significantly, states that are already signatories to the treaty include Morocco, Argentina and Bosnia. Several other European nations have also signed up, although the Netherlands is not among them.

Next: ratification
Besides laying out clear rules about what constitutes a disappearance, the convention also recognises the right to reparation and to the truth for victims and their families. Signatories to the convention will have to include these measures into their national legislation. The delegates expressed the hope that 20 countries will ratify the document by the end of 2007 for it to enter effect.

Human rights organisations say the ceremony in Paris caps a long and difficult struggle for justice. Mugiyanto is a member of the Indonesian Association of Families of the Disappeared. He was abducted, together with 25 other students, in 1998. For two days, he was held at a secret location and tortured. Then he spent three months in a police cell. He is one of the few survivors of the experience:

“This is a very historic moment for me as a survivor of the disappearances […]This convention will provide us with tools to stop this practice. I’m hoping now that those who were taken with me will be found, alive or dead.”

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Finally tackling the threat of ‘disappearance’
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