“Enforced disappearance is a shameful practice and a crime under international human rights law, whether it is used to repress political dissent, combat organized crime or carried out under the guise of fighting terrorism.”
Suela Janina, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances
Enforced disappearance is a global problem, not restricted to a specific region of the world. The figures differ, some reports say that as many as 100 000 might be missing in Colombia and after the war in the Balkans in the 1990s almost 15 000 people remain unaccounted for. In Peru the number of people missing is 15 000, Nepal 1300, El Salvador 9000 and so it continues.
In December 2006 the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from enforced Disappearance, was adopted and it entered into force in 2007. The Convention is now signed by 49 states and ratified by 58. Every day people go missing, and thousands of people are forcedly disappeared, every year due to circumstances such as internal conflict, or as a means of political repression of persons in opposition to the dominant political power. The threats that are directed towards human rights defenders, witnesses and lawyers fighting the practice of enforced disappearances, are very serious and must be reacted to. Also, relatives of victims of enforced disappearance are unsecure and under threat. On the 30 of August each year the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances commemorates the International Day of the Disappeared. All over the world, events are organized by the families and associations of victims to remember those that have suffered the terrible fate of being disappeared, often with impunity for those who are responsible.
An important aspect of this, and something which could need more attention is the mental health situation for family members, relatives and friends of persons disappeared.
The uncertainty that the relatives are living with, is extremely stressful and are scars or open wounds that may threaten the psychological health of those involved. For many this represents serious psychological trauma or even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The terror and trauma of living without the beloved ones who have disappeared, are described by in the article of Margriet Blaauw and Virpi Lähteenmäki "Denial and silence’ or ‘acknowledgement and disclosure" and in the book of Paz Rojas Baeza La interminable ausencia. Estudio médico, psicológico y político de la desaparición forzada de personas, ("The neverending absence. A medical, psychological and political study on enforced disappearances of persons", the book is only in Spanish). In which, the consequences for the family and the community, where enforced disappearances are described and discussed from a psychosocial health point of view.
“The disappeared are denied a place among the living and also denied a place among the dead.”
Shari Eppel, Amani Trust Zimbabwe.
The lack of a body to mourn similarly causes serious psychological distress amongst the relatives. Without the possibility to identify the loved one, and provide a burial and a last farewell for those lost, the relatives cannot grieve in the way that seemed right to them, or adjust to the loss, reorganize the future and go on with their lives.
Often the person that has been forcefully disappeared is the breadwinner in the family. Thus the loss is made worse by lack of income. Without a death certificate it is difficult to acquire the rights that they are entitled to, in the form of pensions or compensations. Forced disappearances, constitute in all possible ways, one of the most severe human rights violations, forcing both victims and families into long-lasting suffering, with strong psychological and social consequences, even over generations.
There are several organizations that work with the human rights of disappeared persons and their families:
- UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances
- UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
- Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)
with an example of a workshop From victims to healers.
- International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances
with a list of the website of its coalition members
- ICRC Missing persons and international humanitarian law
- The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
- Trial International – Enforced Disappearance