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Today, August 30th is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) will explore this topic in a series of blog posts to draw much-needed attention to the forgotten crime of enforced disappearances. This first post explains what an enforced disappearance is, who it affects, the role of the State, and how authoritarian regimes use enforced disappearances to further their agendas. The following posts will feature personal stories, different countries, and several activists in our community who have directly or indirectly experienced enforced disappearances. This series will shed light on this underreported crime and put it in context worldwide. 

HRF demands justice for those whose whereabouts are unknown, and expresses our support for the loved ones of those who were forcibly disappeared. HRF urges governments to stop, protect against, and prevent enforced disappearances and bring justice to survivors.

By Claudia Bennett, Lisa Schmidt, and Hannah Van Dijcke

Imagine one day, you go to your relative’s home, and when you arrive, you immediately know something is wrong — the door is wide open, and inside, everything is in disarray. Or you visit your local supermarket only to find that the shop is closed and people are waiting outside, as the owner didn’t show up that morning. Or you have a meeting scheduled with a journalist, and she misses the appointment. You text and call her, but her phone goes to voicemail.

What do your relative, the shopkeeper, and the journalist have in common? They have been vocal against their government, attended protests, or organized an opposition group, and consequently, State officials have forcibly disappeared them. You have no idea where they are; State officials will not even acknowledge that they are missing, let alone that the State would be involved in the disappearance. You fear that if you speak out, it will happen to you, your friends, or other members of your family. Based on stories and accounts you have heard in your community, you can guess that your loved one is likely suffering under atrocious conditions, probably being tortured and at risk of execution. 

This is the unfortunate reality of thousands of people worldwide, yet the international community rarely talks about enforced disappearances. These crimes are severely underreported and often go unpunished. 

So what exactly is an enforced disappearance? According to Article 2 of the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), it is the disappearance of a person against their will by a State or State authorities, in the form of an arrest, detention, abduction, or any other form of deprivation of liberty. And notably, what differentiates enforced disappearances from arbitrary detention is that the whereabouts and fate of the disappeared person are unknown. 

Enforced disappearances affect people of all ages, genders, races, religions, and occupations. They occur in situations of armed conflicts, uprisings, migration and internal displacement, kidnappings, and in the name of national security — but also in settings with no turmoil whatsoever. Moreover, victims and survivors of enforced disappearances experience extreme human rights violations. They cannot talk to their families or call an attorney, will likely never get their day in court in front of an independent judge, are often tortured, and are kept in the dark about where they are, how long they will be held, or what the future holds. 

A key element in enforced disappearances is the involvement of a State. It is the State that refuses to acknowledge the disappearance or share the whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places that person outside the protection of the law. The uncertainty, hopelessness, and fear —caused by the sudden separation, lack of information, and unknowns of the situation — amount to undeniable suffering for those whose loved ones were forcibly disappeared. The crime of enforced disappearance is more than a human rights violation against an individual; it is a human rights violation against families, friends, and communities.

Between 1980 and 2021, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) transmitted 59,212 cases of enforced disappearances to 110 States. HRF’s analysis of WGEID’s data revealed that internationally reported enforced disappearances disproportionately happen in authoritarian countries. Only 20% of the cases WGEID transmitted concerned democracies, while 73% of the cases of enforced disappearance occurred in competitive or fully authoritarian nations.

Authoritarian regimes use enforced disappearances to silence, terrorize, and oppress dissidents and critics. Without independent media, enforced disappearances happen in complete silence. The media often does not report enforced disappearances because they are controlled by the regime or fear retaliation. And without an independent judiciary, perpetrators of enforced disappearances can continue the practice with complete impunity. 

Enforced disappearances are an atrocious crime that affects people worldwide, and authoritarian regimes are at the root of enforced disappearances. In this series, HRF will shed light on enforced disappearances, a grave and underreported human rights violation. We aim to inform the public, advocate for justice for victims and survivors, and urge governments to stop, protect against, and prevent enforced disappearances.