International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

News | Posted on Wednesday 29 August 2018

Enforced disappearances are a widespread phenomenon around the world, and they are a human rights violation where the state is often the perpetrator. The annual ‘International Victims of Enforced Disappearances’ day provides an opportunity to consider the victims and the origins of this crime.

What is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances?

Held annually on 30 August, the day of ‘International Victims of Enforced Disappearances’ provides an opportunity to consider the victims and the origins of this crime. Sadly, enforced disappearances are a widespread phenomenon around the world, and they are a human rights violation where the state is often the perpetrator.

The Convention against Enforced disappearance has defined it to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty of a person by agents of the state. This is followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty of the victim. It is a crime under international law, although not every country has criminalized disappearances perpetrated by the state under domestic law.

Paradigmatic cases: The Third Reich and the Dictatorships in South America

Enforced disappearance was criminalized under international law after the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and 1946. In December 1941, the Third Reich issued a decree called Night and Fog (Natch und Nebel). It targeted political opponents in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Norway. Seeking to dissuade any resistance to the regime and spread total terror, the decree legalized the extrajudicial killings of these citizens.

Without providing any information to their families, citizens were detained and secretly sent to concentration camps. They had the letters ‘NN’ on their clothes: Not named. Afterwards, special tribunals would issue a sentence in complete secrecy. This highlights how victims were robbed of their rights and humanity. Disappearances are often defined as social catastrophe: the individual is destroyed. Victims of enforced disappearances ceased to be citizens, and instead became the ‘disappeared’ who were placed outside the law.

Authoritarian regimes in Latin America also perpetrated massive disappearances during the ‘70s under the pretext of the Cold War. Military dictatorships in South America worked together to target political activists in the region, and established mechanisms of cooperation to trade prisoners. Disappearances were systematic: resources were diverted to build illegal detention centres and design mechanisms to get rid of the bodies of the victims.

Secrecy was (and still is) the hallmark of disappearances. Perpetrators understood that visible forms of repression were inconvenient after the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and 1946. Disappearances were accompanied by strong denials that claimed that they were not taking place, instead attributing the crime to other causes. Perpetrators would say that the victims were hiding or that they had run away.

This crime also represents an enduring trauma for the relatives. With the absence of a body to know the final fate of the victim, relatives suffered from an ambiguous sense of loss. This stressful condition affects their mental health since they are unable to gain closure or mourn their loved ones.

The relatives and the fight against impunity

However, in Cold War Latin America, devastated relatives transformed their grief and uncertainty into political action and mobilization. The relatives of the disappeared in Latin America founded the first Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in 1981 along with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo that continue to search for the babies born in captivity during the Argentine dictatorship.

On 21 December 2010, the resolution 65/209 of the UN General Assembly decided to declare 30 August as the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. It is important to understand the origins and background of this crime, but also to acknowledge that it continues to happen under both democratic  and authoritarian governments, to little international outcry.

The case of the 43 students abducted in Mexico in 2014, the disappearance of journalist Itai Zimunya in Zimbabwe in 2015, the vanishing - and ultimately the death - of Italian Cambridge student Guilio Regeni in Egypt in 2016 or the ongoing systematic disappearances in Colombia are a reminder that enforced disappearances are hardly a past crime.

Notes to editors:

Written by Carla Torres IGDC Communications Intern

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC