Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Vanished, But Not Forgotten

Mithre J. Sandrasagra

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 2006 (IPS) - Marking the International Day of the Disappeared, United Nations officials joined international human rights groups Wednesday to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of people around the world who have been seized and imprisoned without recourse to their families or lawyers.

“Enforced disappearance is a crime under international human rights law and – when it occurs in war – under international humanitarian law. It is tantamount to deleting a person’s very existence and denies him or her the basic protection of the law to which every man and woman, irrespective of guilt or innocence, is entitled,” said Philip Spoerri, director of law at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“The damage to the bereft, who, unlike the bereaved, continue to hope against hope, is far-reaching and long-lasting, affecting not only individuals but the societies in which they live,” stressed Spoerri.

Since its creation in 1980, the Geneva-based U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has submitted more than 50,000 individual cases to governments in more than 90 countries.

“The working group is deeply concerned about the large number of reports of enforced disappearances that have been submitted over the past year,” it said in a statement Wednesday. “Many reports have been received of the disappearance of children and, in a few cases, of people with physical and mental disabilities.”

The five-member group – with representatives from Canada, Croatia, Iran, Mexico and Nigeria – also cited threats against human rights defenders, relatives of disappeared persons, witnesses and legal counsel.

It stressed that “anti-terrorist” activities “are being used by an increasing number of States as an excuse for not respecting the obligations of the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance” adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1992.

The group urged governments to treat all acts of enforced disappearance as criminal offences, a step few so far have taken. It recommended that the U.N. General Assembly adopt a new draft treaty on the issue when delegates and heads of state meet in September.

In the Balkans, there are still thousands of people unaccounted for as a result of the former conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, according to ICRC. Of more than 33,000 tracing requests for missing persons opened by the ICRC since the outbreak of hostilities, 18,555 remain unaccounted for – 13,862 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2,409 from Croatia and 2,284 from Kosovo.

In Kosovo, the acting special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, Steven Schook, took the occasion to call on all concerned to join together in efforts to determine the fate of persons still missing from the conflict in that province, where NATO troops drove out Yugoslav forces in 1999.

“People should be arrested and detained according to the law, not forced into a van in the middle of the night and swept off to an anonymous detention centre where they risk torture and further abuses. Individuals have the right to challenge their detention, to see a lawyer of their choosing and talk to their families. Families have a right to know where their relatives are,” said Catherine Baber, deputy Asia Pacific director at Amnesty International.

“Sadly, state-ordered or supported abductions, secret detention and extra-judicial killings are nothing new,” said Spoerri in a statement released Wednesday.

The rhetoric of the U.S.-led “war on terror” is now being used to justify existing patterns of human rights violations, according to Amnesty.

After the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Iraq in February 2004, the U.S. administration ordered a number of investigations and reviews of its detention and interrogation practices.

The leaked report of the probe by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba and the report by Maj. Gen. George Fay, among others, documented the existence of so-called “ghost detainees”. These detainees were held in secret and moved around the prisons where they were being held to hide them from visits by the ICRC. The Taguba report described this manoeuvre as “deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine and in violation of international law”.

New patterns of enforced disappearance related to the “war on terror” have also emerged in South Asia alongside the long-standing problems in countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, said Amnesty in a statement released Wednesday.

In Nepal, a government committee announced in July that it was investigating more than 600 outstanding cases of forced disappearance, but local activists say there are more than 1,000 individuals who are unaccounted for.

Sri Lanka has one of the highest levels of unresolved forced disappearances in the world.

In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, an estimated 8,000-10,000 forced disappearances have been reported since 1989. While fewer new cases are reported now, there is still no information about past cases, according to Amnesty.

The human rights group believes that several hundred people have become victims of forced disappearances in Pakistan in the context of the “war on terror”. While many of those have eventually been acknowledged as being held in the U.S. Guatanamo Bay detention facility, others are believed still to be held in Pakistani detention, although their precise whereabouts remain unknown.

Sixty-two cases of forced disappearances in the north of Sri Lanka have been registered following the introduction of new “emergency regulations” in August 2005 that granted sweeping powers to the security forces. Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission is also investigating the status of 183 other individuals who are still missing under unknown circumstances.

Last year, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances asked governments to investigate over 550 new cases.

“Few of those responsible for these acts have ever been held to account. Impunity or failures of justice create a social climate in which there can be no trust in institutions and hence no stability. If enforced disappearances go unpunished, the memory of the missing will haunt the societies in which such acts are covered up,” Spoerri stressed.

Families of the disappeared around the world have fought against such impunity for many decades. They have kept the memory of their relatives alive by demanding answers, while at the same time working to prevent future disappearances.

One part of their struggle has been a growing demand for an international treaty.

After 25 years of campaigning by families, the new U.N. Human Rights Council approved the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance on Jun. 29. The treaty must now be submitted to the U.N. General Assembly for adoption by the member states.

The new Convention contains an absolute prohibition on forced disappearances in both peacetime and wartime, and enshrines measures such as the registration of detainees, their right of access to a court and the right to contact their lawyers and families.

Importantly, it establishes an international mechanism to supervise states’ compliance with their obligations, and an urgent appeals procedure that can be used where forced disappearance is suspected.

At the first session of the new U.N. Human Rights Council in June, the foreign minister of Chile, Paulina Veloso, whose husband disappeared during the anti-Marxist “Operation Condor” in 1977, gave testimony in which she expressed her belief that the U.N.’s efforts on behalf of the disappeared, together with general condemnation by the international community, may have limited the number of disappearances.

“At those moments of loneliness and anxiety,” Veloso told the Council, “the care of the commission was a great support to me, which gave me strength to keep confidence in people, in human rights and in the community that defends them.”

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