Enforced disappearance: A global problem

Published : 04 Oct 2022 09:17 PM

Enforced disappearance remains a global issue in upholding human rights. The term refers to a situation where victims are abducted or arrested by the state or agents of the state, and they go missing as their whereabouts remain unknown afterward. Since the 1980s, enforced disappearance has become a strong tool for oppressors worldwide to silence their political opponents. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance (WGEID) has documented cases of enforced disappearance in 112 countries since 1980. But many more cases remain unofficial and mysterious till today.

The primary victims of disappearance are human rights activists, Key witnesses of any important case, political activists, and relatives of the disappeared who are looking for answers. During the 1980s and 1990s, enforced disappearance remained a strong tool for dictators and authoritarian regimes. Worldwide conflicts also produced many victims. Later, the democratic government also started using this heinous tool to combat terrorism. The War on Terror and the strategies followed by security officials worldwide used to abduct terrorists or suspects for interrogation. Many landed in secret detention centers such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, run by the War on Terror campaigners.

However, the growing authoritarianism worldwide and democratic backsliding are also important in making enforced disappearance rampant. Populist governments worldwide are also prone to use this tool to advance their policies, particularly in maintaining the internal security, which often leads to abduction. Civil wars and internal political unrest are also fuelling the problem. 

The WGEID documented more than a thousand cases in Syria and Egypt in the last decade. Before that, during the 1980s, thousands of cases took place in Sri Lanka every year. Sri Lanka faced a civil war between the Tamil and Sinhala populations at that time. 

The official number of disappearances worldwide is also very high. The WGEID has documented 59600 official cases of disappearance in 112 countries since 1980. However, the actual number is much higher. According to Amnesty International’s estimation, 82000 people have faced alleged disappearance in Syria since 2011. The estimation is also high for Sri Lanka, where 60000-100000 people vanished during the 1980s. Pakistan also witnessed more than 1000 cases between 2009 and 2020. 

Perhaps, Argentina has become the poster boy of Enforced Disappearance worldwide due to its dark past. Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina witnessed 8960 official cases of disappearance. But the estimation is much higher than of the official cases. Around 20000-30000 people disappeared during this timeline. Argentina's human rights association, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, later became the inspiration for Anti-disappearance activists globally. Jorge Videla’s reign from 1976 to 1983 was marked by violence, suppression, and the disappearance of activists. Mothers of the disappeared gathered at Plaza de Mayo-a public square in front of the presidential palace. Later, President Videla faced a trial for his crimes against humanity and was sentenced to prison twice in two different trials.

However, most cases remain unsolved due to a lack of information and proper investigation. By 2022, WGEID recorded 46751 cases of 97 states discontinued, closed, or not clarified. The number of cases each year is still very high. The working group examined 696 cases this year during its 128th session. It is worth mentioning that WGEID plays a vital role in documenting, updating, and assisting the disappeared family members in finding their whereabouts. WGEID communicates with states and local human rights organizations and continuously updates the situation worldwide. Even during May 2021-2022, it clarified 104 cases through government communication and its local sources. According to the annual report, the Pakistan government clarified 12 cases - the highest this year, while Saudi Arabia clarified 8 cases - the second-highest. Such cooperation and communication are always welcomed. The annual report also shows that 32 countries have more than 100 cases each, including India, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkiye, and Indonesia.

In a nutshell, there is a 'global' characteristic of enforced disappearance as it occurs in most regions. What became a tool in the dictator's playbook during the 1980s was later expanded through its use in the War of Terror in the 2000s. Conflicts and political turmoil around the world also fuelled the issue further as disappearance remained a challenge to Human Rights in the last decade when most cases were recorded in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Mexico. While WGEID has been making a praiseworthy effort since its creation in 1980, it is not enough to address this problem. Governments have much more to do to ensure accountability, the rule of law, and human rights within the state. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance also came into effect in 2010, establishing a legal path to prevent the issue. Further legal efforts should be made to create a robust legal obligation. 

And lastly, Communications between governments, international stakeholders, and the working group should increase to create a better stakeholding.

Mehzabin Maliha Hossain is an international affairs researcher and pursuing her doctoral studies at National University of Singapore (NUS). Her doctoral thesis concerns the international dimensions of Rohingya crisis.