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Forced disappearance

In international human rights law, a forced disappearance (or enforced disappearance) occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person's fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.[1]

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force on 1 July 2002, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a "forced disappearance" qualifies as a crime against humanity and, thus, is not subject to a statute of limitations. On 20 December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Often forced disappearance implies murder. The victim in such a case is first abducted, then illegally detained, and often tortured; the victim is then killed and the body hidden. Typically, a murder will be surreptitious, with the corpse disposed of in such a way as to never be found, so that the person apparently vanishes. The party committing the murder has deniability, as there is no body to prove that the victim has actually died.


Human rights law

In international human rights law, disappearances at the hands of the state have been codified as "enforced" or "forced disappearances" since the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. For example, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court defines enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity, and the practice is specifically addressed by the OAS's Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. There is also some authority indicating that enforced disappearances occurring during armed conflict,[2] such as the Third Reich's Night and Fog program, may constitute war crimes.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006, also states that the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime against humanity. Crucially, it gives victims' families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones. The Convention provides for the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance, as well as the right for the relatives of the disappeared person to know the truth. The Convention contains several provisions concerning prevention, investigation and sanctioning of this crime, as well as the rights of victims and their relatives, and the wrongful removal of children born during their captivity. The Convention further sets forth the obligation of international co-operation, both in the suppression of the practice, and in dealing with humanitarian aspects related to the crime. The Convention establishes a Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which will be charged with important and innovative functions of monitoring and protection at international level. Currently, an international campaign of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances is working towards universal ratification of the Convention.

Disappearances work on two levels: not only do they silence opponents and critics who have disappeared, but they also create uncertainty and fear in the wider community, silencing others who would oppose and criticise. Disappearances entail the violation of many fundamental human rights. For the disappeared person, these include the right to liberty, the right to personal security and humane treatment (including freedom from torture), the right to a fair trial, to legal counsel and to equal protection under the law, and the right of presumption of innocence among others. Their families, who often spend the rest of their lives searching for information on the disappeared, are also victims.


NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch record in their annual report the number of known cases of forced disappearance.


During the Algerian Civil War, which began in 1992 as Islamist guerrillas attacked the military government which had annulled an Islamist electoral victory, thousands of people had forcibly disappeared. Disappearances continued up to the late 1990s, but thereafter dropped off sharply with the decline in violence in 1997. Some of the disappeared were kidnapped or killed by the guerrillas, but others are presumed to have been taken by state security services. This latter group has become the most controversial. Their exact numbers remain disputed, but the government has acknowledged a figure of just over 6,000 disappeared, now presumed dead. Opposition sources claim the real number is closer to 17,000. (The war claimed a total toll of 150 200,000 deaths). In 2005, a controversial amnesty law was approved in a referendum, which, among other things, granted financial compensation to families of disappeared, but also effectively ended the police investigations into the crimes.[3]


During Argentina's Dirty War and Operation Condor, many alleged political dissidents were abducted or illegally detained and kept in clandestine detention centres such as ESMA, where they were questioned, tortured and sometimes killed. Whenever the female captives were pregnant, their children were stolen away right after giving birth, while they themselves remained detained. Eventually, many of the captives were heavily drugged and taken on airplanes far out over the Atlantic Ocean, into which they were thrown alive, allegedly with heavy weights tied to their feet, so as to leave no trace of their death. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny any knowledge of their whereabouts and any accusations that they had been killed. People murdered in this way (and in others) are today referred to as "the disappeared" (los desaparecidos), and this is where the modern usage of the term derives. There is an activist group called "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo", formed by mothers of those victims of the dictatorship. Mathematician Boris Weisfeiler is thought to have disappeared near Colonia Dignidad, a German colony founded by anti-Communist Paul Sch fer in Chile, which was used as a detention center by the DINA, the secret police.[4]

The phrase was recognized by Argentine de facto President, General Jorge Rafael Videla, who said in a press conference during the military government which he commanded in Argentina: "They are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing)". It is thought that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, up to 30,000 people (9,000 verified named cases, according to the official report by the CONADEP)[5] were subjected to forced disappearance.


Almost immediately after the military's seizure of power on 11 September 1973, the Chilean military junta banned all the leftist parties that had constituted the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende's UP coalition.[6] All other parties were placed in "indefinite recess," and were later banned outright. The government's violence was directed not only against dissidents, but also against their families and other civilians.[6] [See: Missing (1982)]

The Rettig Report concluded 2,279 persons who disappeared during the military government were killed for political reasons or as a result of political violence, and approximately 31,947 tortured according to the later Valech Report, while 1,312 were exiled. The latter were chased all over the world by the intelligence agencies. In Latin America, this was made in the frame of Operation Condor, a cooperation plan between the various intelligence agencies of South American countries, assisted by a United States CIA communication base in Panama. Pinochet believed these operations were necessary in order to "save the country from communism".[7]

Some political scientists have ascribed the relative bloodiness of the coup to the stability of the existing democratic system, which required extreme action to overturn. Some of the most famous cases of human rights violation occurred during the early period: in October 1973, at least 70 people were killed throughout the country by the Caravan of Death. Charles Horman, a US journalist, "disappeared", as did V ctor Olea Alegr a, a member of the Socialist Party, and many others, in 1973.

Furthermore, many other important officials of Allende's government were tracked down by the DINA in the frame of Operation Condor. Thus, General Carlos Prats, Pinochet's predecessor and army commander under Allende, who had resigned rather than support the moves against Allende's government, was assassinated in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1974. A year later, the murder of 119 opponents abroad was disguised as an internal conflict, the DINA setting up a propaganda campaign to accredit this thesis (Operation Colombo), campaign that received diffusion by the leading newspaper in Chile, El Mercurio.

Other victims of Condor included, among hundreds of less famous persons, Juan Jos Torres, the former President of Bolivia, assassinated in Buenos Aires on 2 June 1976; Carmelo Soria, a UN diplomat working for the CEPAL, assassinated in July 1976; Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to the United States and minister in Allende's cabinet, assassinated after his release from internment and exile in Washington, D.C. by a car bomb on 21 September 1976. This led to strained relations with the US and to the extradition of Michael Townley, a US citizen who worked for the DINA and had organized Letelier's assassination. Other targeted victims, who escaped assassination, included Christian-Democrat Bernardo Leighton, who escaped an assassination attempt in Rome in 1975 by the Italian terrorist Stefano delle Chiaie; Carlos Altamirano, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, targeted for murder in 1975 by Pinochet, along with Volodia Teitelboim, member of the Communist Party; Pascal Allende, the nephew of Salvador Allende and president of the MIR, who escaped an assassination attempt in Costa Rica in March 1976; US Congressman Edward Koch, who became aware in 2001 of relations between death threats and his denunciation of Operation Condor, etc. Furthermore, according to current investigations, Eduardo Frei Montalva, the Christian Democrat President of Chile from 1964 to 1970, may have been poisoned in 1982 by toxin produced by DINA biochemist Eugenio Berrios.[8]

Protests continued, however, during the 1980s, leading to several scandals. In March 1985, the savage murder of three Communist Party members led to the resignation of C sar Mendoza, head of the Carabineros and member of the junta since its formation. During a 1986 protest against Pinochet, 21 year old American photographer Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri and 18 year old student Carmen Gloria Quintana were burnt alive, with only Carmen surviving.

In August 1989, Marcelo Barrios Andres, a 21 year-old member of the FPMR (the armed wing of the PCC, created in 1983, which had attempted to assassinate Pinochet on 7 September 1986), was assassinated by a group of military personnel who were supposed to arrest him on orders of Valpara so's public prosecutor. However, they simply executed him; this case was included in the Rettig Report.[9] Among the killed and disappeared during the military regime were 440 MIR guerrillas.[10]


In 2009, Colombian prosecutors reported that an estimated 28,000 people have disappeared due to paramilitary and guerrilla groups during the nation's ongoing internal conflict. In 2008, the corpses of 300 victims were identified and 600 more during the following year. According to Colombian officials, it will take many years before all the bodies that have been recovered are identified.[11]

Equatorial Guinea

According to the UN Human Rights Council Mission to Equatorial Guinea [12] agents of the Equatorial Guinean Government have been responsible for abducting refugees from other countries in the region, and holding them in secret detention. For example, in January 2010 [13] four men were abducted from Benin by Equatorial Guinean security forces, held in secret detention, subjected to torture, and executed in August 2010 immediately after being convicted by a military court.


During World War II, Nazi Germany set up secret police forces, including branches of the Gestapo in occupied countries, which they used to hunt down known or suspected dissidents or partisans. This tactic was given the name Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), to describe those who disappeared after being arrested by Nazi forces without any warning. The Nazis also applied this policy against political opponents within Germany. Most victims were killed on the spot, or sent to concentration camps, with the full expectation that they would then be killed.

The Stasi also carried out disappearances in post war Germany. Relatives were not always informed at the time that someone had disappeared.


Guatemala was one of the first countries where forced disappearances were used as a generalized practice of terror against a civilian population. 45,000 people disappeared during the years of the armed conflict that ended in 1996.


Ensaaf, a partisan NGO dedicated to the cause of Khalistani Sikh Extremism their front, "Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG)" released a pamphlet in January 2009, claiming "verifiable quantitative"[sic] findings on mass disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the Indian state of Punjab, opposing mainstream portrayal of the Punjab counterinsurgency as a successful campaign.[14] The report by Ensaaf and HRDAG, Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India, presents empirical findings suggesting that the intensification of counterinsurgency operations in Punjab in the early 1990s was accompanied by a shift in state violence from targeted lethal human rights violations to systematic enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, accompanied by mass illegal cremations.

This year alone Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has recommended the identification of all those 2,156 people buried in unmarked graves in north Kashmir.Total number of missing peoples by Indian forces is not known but it is very high ratio.


At least tens of thousands of people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein, many of them during Operation Anfal.


Following the Iran student riots in 1999, more than 70 students disappeared. In addition to an estimated 1,200 1,400 detained, the "whereabouts and condition" of five students named by Human Rights Watch remained unknown.[15] The United Nations has also reported other disappearances.[16] After each manifestation, from teacher unions to women's rights activists, at least some disappearances are expected.[17][18] Dissident writers have been the target of disappearances,[19] as have members of religious minorities such as the Baha'i Faith following the Iranian revolution. Examples include Muhammad Movahhed and Ali Murad Davudi.


According to National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH), between 2006 and 2011, 5,397 people have been disappeared. Of these, 3,457 are men, 1,885 are women, but there is no information about the other 55 (source BBC). Usually the forced disappearances occur in groups and are on people not related to the drug war which started by Felipe Calder n in 2006. The main difference from the kidnappings, is that usually there is no ransom asked for the disappeared.


Moroccan writer Malika Oufkir daughter of General Mohamed Oufkir is a former disappeared in Morocco Several Moroccan Army personnel suspected of being implicated in the 1970s coups against the King were held in secret detention camps such as Tazmamart, some of them died due to poor conditions or lack of medical treatment. The most famous case of forced disappearance in Morocco is that of political dissident Mehdi Ben Barka, who disappeared in obscure circumstance in France in 1965. In February 2007, Morocco signed an international convention protecting people from forced disappearance,[20][21] In October 2007, Spanish judge Baltasar Garz n has declared the competence of the Spanish jurisdiction in the Spanish-Sahrawi disappearances between 1976 and 1987 in Western Sahara, and there have been charges brought against some Moroccan military heads, some of them currently in power , like the head of Morocco's armed forces, general Housni Benlismane, charged for the detention and disappearance campaign of Smara in 1976.[22] His substitute, judge Fernando Pablo Ruz, reopened the cause in November 2010.[23]


In Pakistan the military has been conducting military operation since 2000. Since then hundreds of people have gone missing.

Northern Ireland

The disappeared is the name given to sixteen people believed or confirmed to have been abducted, killed and buried in unmarked graves by republican paramilitaries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.[24] In 1999 the IRA admitted to killing nine of the sixteen, and gave information on the location of the bodies, but only three bodies were recovered on that occasion, one of which had already been exhumed and placed in a coffin.[25] The best-known case was that of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of ten who had lost her husband a few months before she disappeared, and who the IRA claimed was an informer.[26] The search for her remains was abandoned in 1999[27] but her body was discovered in 2003, a mile from where the IRA had indicated, by a family out on a walk.[26] Since then four more victims have been found, one in 2008[28] and three in 2010.[29][30][31] The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, established in 1999, is the body responsible for locating the disappeared.[32]


During the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, it is claimed that forced disappearances occurred. For example during the strikes of 1977 and 1987 in Romania respectively, leading persons involved in the strikes are claimed to have been "disappeared".


Russian rights groups estimate there have been about 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya since 1999.[33] Most of them are believed to be buried in several dozen mass graves.

The Russian government failed to pursue any accountability process for human rights abuses committed during the course of the conflict in Chechnya. Unable to secure justice domestically, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In March 2005 the court issued the first rulings on Chechnya, finding the Russian government guilty of violating the right to life and the prohibition of torture with respect to civilians who had died or been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Russia's federal troops.[34]

Soviet Union

Disappearance was a special clause in the penal sentence: "without the right to correspondence". In many cases this phrase hid the execution of the convicted, although the sentence may have been for, say, "10 years of labor camps without the right to correspondence". The fate of tens of thousands of people only became known after the 1950s De-Stalinization.

Sri Lanka

According to a United Nations 1999 study, Sri Lanka [35] has the second highest number of disappeared people in the world. Since 1980, 12,000[36] Sri Lankans have gone missing after being detained by security forces. More than 55,000 people have been killed in the past 27 years. The figures are still lower than the current Sri Lankan government's own estimate of 17,000 people missing,[37] which was made after it came to power with a commitment to correct the human rights issues.

In 2003, the International Red Cross (ICRC)[38] restarted investigations into the disappearance of 11,000 people during Sri Lanka's civil war.

On 29 May 2009, the British newspaper The Times acquired confidential U.N. documents that record nearly 7,000 civilian deaths in the no-fire zone up to the end of April. The toll then surged, the paper quoted unidentified U.N. sources as saying, with an average of 1,000 civilians killed each day until 19 May, when the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels. That means the final death toll is more than 20,000, The Times said. "Higher," a U.N. source told the paper. "Keep going." The United Nations has previously said 7,000 civilians were killed in fighting between January and May. A top Sri Lankan official called the 20,000 figure unfounded. Gordon Weiss, a U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, told CNN that a large number of civilians were killed, though he did not confirm the 20,000 figure.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused[39] Sri Lanka of causing untold suffering .


Cases of forced disappearance in Syria started when late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad started to face opposition from citizens in the late 1970s. While he was able to buy elite merchants of Damascus through Badr el-Deen Shallah, the general public was outraged by Assad's policies in ruling the country and the rise of corruption. From then on, any voice opposing or questioning the Syrian government was silenced by forced disappearance or threats. Bashar al-Assad took his father's policy further and considered any voice questioning anything about Syria's political, economical, social, or otherwise policies should be monitored and when needed, detained and accused of weakening national empathy. A recent case is Tal Mallohi, a 19-year old blogger summoned for interrogation on 27 December 2009 and never went back home.


On 12 March 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit, a well-known Thai Muslim activist lawyer in the kingdom's southern region, was kidnapped by Thai police and has since disappeared. Officially listed as a disappeared person, his presumed widow, Mrs. Ankhana Neelapaichit, has been seeking justice for her husband since Somchai first went missing. On 11 March 2009, Mrs. Neelapaichit was part of a special panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to commemorate her husband's disappearance and to keep attention focused on the case and on human rights abuses in Thailand.


Turkish human rights groups accuse the Turkish security forces of being responsible for the disappearance of more than 1,500 civilians of the Kurdish minority in the 1980s and 1990s, in attempts to root out the PKK. Each year Yakar-Der, the Turkish Human Rights Association (I HD) and the International Committee Against Disappearances (ICAD), organise a series of events in Turkey to mark the "Week of Disappeared People".

In April 2009, state prosecutors in Turkey ordered the excavation of several sites around Turkey believed to hold Kurdish victims of state death squads from the 1980s and 1990s, in response to calls for Turkey's security establishment to come clean about past abuses. [40]

In art and popular culture


  • Missing (1982) – Directed by Costa-Gavras.
  • Night of the Pencils (1982) – Directed by H ctor Olivera.
  • The Official Story (1985) – Directed by Luis Puenzo.
  • A Wall of Silence (1993) – Directed by Lita Stantic.
  • Death and the Maiden (1994) – Directed by Roman Polanski.
  • The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca (1997) – Directed by Marcos Zurinaga.
  • Imagining Argentina (2003) – Directed by Christopher Hampton.
  • The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006) – Directed by Cao Hamburger.
  • Rendition (2007) – Directed by Gavin Hood.
  • Dukot (2009) – Directed by Joel Lamangan.


  • Catch-22. Written by Joseph Heller.
  • Darkness at Noon. Written by Arthur Koestler.
  • The Disappeared. Written by Kim Echlin.
  • "Graffiti" from the collection Queremos tanto a Glenda. Written by Julio Cort zar.
  • Informaci n para extranjeros (English Title: Information for Foreigners). Written by Griselda Gambaro.
  • La muerte y la doncella (English Title: Death and the Maiden). Written by Ariel Dorfman.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written by George Orwell.
  • A Tale of Two Cities. Written by Charles Dickens.
  • V for Vendetta. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd.
  • When Darkness Falls. Written by James Grippando (2007).
  • The Ministry of Special Cases. Written by Nathan Englander (2007).

Popular music

  • A song called "Desaparecidos" appeared on the album Voice of America by Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul.
  • "Desapariciones" by Rub n Blades (also covered by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Man ).
  • "Mothers of the Disappeared" appeared on the album The Joshua Tree, by U2.
  • "They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)" appeared on the album ...Nothing Like the Sun by Sting.
  • "Desaparecidos, a defunct indie-rock band from Omaha, Nebraska.
  • The song The Circle (Los Olvidados) by Kris Kristofferson is about the Disappeared Ones
  • The song Undercover of the night by The Rolling Stones mentions the Desaparecidos of South America.
  • The Disappeared, a four piece, indie guitar band from Manchester, England.

See also

  • Argentine Dirty War
  • Black sites
  • Black jails (China)
  • Comisi n Nacional sobre la Desaparici n de Personas
  • Command responsibility
  • Damnatio memoriae
  • Extraordinary rendition
  • Ghost detainee
  • Gukurahundi
  • International Day of the Disappeared
  • Missing person
  • Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an Argentine activist group formed by mothers of desaparecidos
  • North Korean abductions of Japanese
  • Nacht und Nebel
  • Police encounter
  • Secret police
  • Arbitrary arrest and detention
  • Selective assassination
  • Unperson
  • Unexplained disappearances
  • List of people who have mysteriously disappeared
  • Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance


External links

ca:Desaparici for ada de:Verschwindenlassen eo:Malaperigo es:Desaparici n forzada fa: fr:Disparition forc e gl:Desaparici n forzada ilo:Napilit a panagpukaw la:Decessio coacta nl:Gedwongen verdwijning no:Tvungen forsvinning pt:Desaparecimento for ado ta:

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