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UN: End ‘Disappearances’ Worldwide

International Convention against Enforced Disappearance Taking Effect

NEW YORK - The Convention against Enforced Disappearance, which takes effect on December 23, 2010, should strengthen international efforts to end this horrific practice, Human Rights Watch said today. The treaty should advance justice for victims and accountability for those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance enters into force one month after it is ratified by 20 nations. On November 23, Iraq became the 20th country to ratify the treaty and two others have since done so. The convention defines an enforced disappearance as occurring when authorities deprive an individual of liberty and then refuse to provide information regarding the person's fate or whereabouts.

"Enforced disappearances inflict unbearable cruelty not just on the victims, but on family members - who often wait years or decades to learn of their fate," said Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. "Putting this landmark treaty into effect is immensely important, but to end this practice, every country is going to have to recognize that it may never abduct people and hide them away."

Relatives of the disappeared campaigned relentlessly for the Convention against Enforced Disappearance, which both elaborates on the prohibition against disappearances and recognizes the rights of victims' families to truth and a remedy. The governments of Argentina and France provided diplomatic leadership for the convention to gain the necessary international support, Human Rights Watch said.

Enforced disappearances constitute an international crime, prohibited in all circumstances. They may form the basis for prosecutions for war crimes or crimes against humanity, and a disappearance triggers an obligation to investigate and prosecute. Although international law has long recognized their illegality, new disappearances continue across all regions. Governments have also routinely failed to effectively investigate and provide information on the fate of those previously disappeared, which constitutes a continuing violation.

Many late 20th century civil armed conflicts included enforced disappearances, and the practice has continued into the past decade, including in counterterrorism operations since the September 11, 2001 attacks. New cases have been reported in Chechnya in Russia and other parts of the North Caucasus, in addition to the thousands of cases outstanding since the 1990s that have not been properly investigated.

In Pakistan, hundreds have disappeared since 2001, while the Bush administration in the United States disappeared dozens of "ghost prisoners" - individuals held in secret detention centers, including in Europe. There have been at least 30,000 disappearances in Sri Lanka since the late 1980s; hundreds have been reported in the Philippines and Thailand; and Indian security forces were implicated in 4,000 to 10,000 disappearances in Kashmir in the 1990s.


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In the Middle East, many disappearances have occurred over the past decades in Algeria, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. In Latin America, where a number of countries are parties to the convention, thousands of families still await information on the fate of loved ones who have disappeared and justice for the perpetrators.

"The persistence of disappearances is a stark reminder of how much remains to be done, both under the new treaty and as a human rights priority for countries where the problem of disappearances is most serious," Reidy said.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted on December 20, 2006. When it was opened for signature on February 6, 2007, 57 countries signed immediately. The 22 countries that have ratified the convention thus far are: Albania, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Senegal, Spain, and Uruguay.

While the convention responds to a substantial gap in the law - the absence of a treaty to address the multiple violations of human rights that make up enforced disappearances - it is also based on firmly established standards of customary international law. The convention sets out the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance and requires nations to prohibit and criminalize this practice in their national legislation. Treaty provisions cover the criminal responsibility of subordinates and superiors, national and international preventive measures, extradition, and international cooperation.

The convention establishes a significant body of legal obligations to prevent disappearances, including prohibitions on secret detention, a requirement that anyone detained must be held in an officially recognized and supervised facility, and ensuring absolute rights to habeas corpus and to obtain information about detainees.

Furthermore, the convention recognizes the right to truth and reparation for victims and their families. It also contains provisions to protect children of victims of enforced disappearance from being wrongfully taken by authorities, given false identities, and adopted.

The convention provides for the creation of a committee to monitor the convention's provisions and to consider individual and inter-state complaints. The committee would also be able to take emergency actions if needed, to undertake field inquiries, and to bring situations of widespread and systematic disappearance to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly.


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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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