UNITED NATIONS - They have vanished, but are not forgotten. Whether they have been killed or are being kept in secret, dark, and unknown prisons, their relatives, family members and human rights activists want to know.
In marking the 25th International Day of the Disappeared on Aug. 30, rights activists in a number of countries across the world are holding rallies and sit-ins to press their governments for immediate ratification of the U.N. Convention against Enforced Disappearance.
The 2006 treaty was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 2006. It has been signed by 73 nations, but not ratified. So far, only four countries -- Albania, Argentina, Mexico and Honduras -- have ratified it.
"Enforced disappearance", according to the treaty, is the "arrest, detention, abduction by agents of the state or by persons, groups or persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person."
The treaty 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.
Recently, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances reported over 41,000 pending cases across 78 countries. Since its creation in 1980, the Geneva-based group has submitted more than 50,000 individual cases to governments in more than 90 countries.
According to the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, the worst national statistics referred to the Working Group last year were in Sri Lanka, where 5,516 people are currently registered as disappeared, and 30 new urgent action cases were identified in relation to alleged disappearances.
The Working Group and the Day of the Disappeared started at a time of mass disappearances during authoritarian rule in Latin America. Experts on international human rights laws note that today, disappearances tend to occur in nations suffering from internal conflict.
The group has documented a number of cases. To cite an example, Jorge Alberto Rosal Paz "disappeared" in Guatemala on Aug. 12, 1983. The 28-year-old agronomist was kidnapped by armed military personnel in a jeep, while driving between Teculutan and Zacapa. He was never seen again.
When he "disappeared", Jorge Rosal was married and had a daughter. His wife was expecting their second child. It is believed he had no political or religious affiliations. Despite reported sightings of him in detention after his kidnapping, the Guatemalan authorities denied all knowledge of what had happened.
According to Amnesty International, Jorge's family took his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2000, the Guatemalan government issued a statement acknowledging its institutional responsibility in Jorge Rosal's case and others. In 2004, a settlement was reached between the state and Jorge Rosal's family.
The rights group says in the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of people have become victims of enforced disappearances around the world. Their family members and friends are still left without any knowledge of their fate.
The Day of the Disappeared was started in 1983 by the Latin American non-governmental organisation FEDEFAM (Federación Latinoamericana de Asociaciones de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos) at a time when disappearances arose from authoritarian governance by military rulers.
But, as human rights researchers point out, enforced disappearances are taking place in all parts of the world. In September 2006, U.S. President George W Bush publicly acknowledged that the CIA was running prolonged incommunicado detention in secret locations. This practice has involved governments around the world.
Those being held in secret locations have no clue about where they are and what is going to happen to them. It is feared that most of them are at risk of torture and death. Bush reauthorised the programme in 2007.
After the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Iraq in February 2004, the Bush administration ordered a number of investigations and reviews of its detention and interrogation practices.
The leaked reports of the probe by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba and Maj. Gen. George Fay, among others, documented the existence of so-called "ghost detainees," who were held in secret and moved around the prisons where they were being held to hide them from visits by Red Cross members.
In scrutinising the Bush policy on secret detentions, the Amnesty International identifies Pakistan as one of the chief collaborators. The rights group says that in that country there are many cases of enforced disappearances linked to the so-called U.S. war on terror.
The group also points to Iraq as another major source of concern regarding the issue of enforced disappearances. The Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) says this Saturday, family members of the disappeared will gather in Baghdad to give public testimonies of what occurred to their relatives.
"Aug. 30 is very important for the families of the disappeared," said Mary Aileen Bacalso, the secretary-general of AFAD. "It is the day wherein the families can collectively honour their memory. It is an insistence of their moral and spiritual presence despite their physical absence."
Events are being organised in more than 20 countries to pay respect to disappeared persons as well as to campaign for the new convention on enforced disappearances. Among those countries are Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria, Morocco, Belarus, France, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Spain.