Enforced disappearances was first recognized as a human rights problem in the 1970s, when human rights lawyers in Chile noted that some of the prisoners they were representing had dropped from sight and contact even though ostensibly they continued to be held in custody by Chilean security forces. In this brief essay, José Zalaquett recounts the early efforts by human rights groups to understand the phenomenon of enforced disappearance and respond to it as a human rights violation.
“Disappearance” is commonly associated with the Latin American dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s–and especially with the Southern Cone countries of Argentina and Chile–but the phenomenon is not limited to that geographic region or that unique period of time. Guatemalan authorities “disappeared” political opponents in the 1960s, and such geographically diverse countries as Philippines, El Salvador, Sri Lanka and Syria have engaged in the practice.
In 1980 the UN’s Human Rights Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights set up a Working Group on Disappearances as its first thematic human rights mechanism with a universal mandate. In 1992 the UN General Assembly approved a declaration on enforced disappearances and in 2006 finalized the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Enforced disappearance is defined by the treaty as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, 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, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” The treaty entered into force in 2010 and its implementation is monitored by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (a treaty body).
The 1998 indictment of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet revolved around charges of enforced disappearance.
For more information:
José Zalaquett, Professor and Co-Director of Human Rights at the School of Law, University of Chile explains how disappearances came to be recognized as a human rights violation in his narrative, “The Emergence of Disappearances as a Normative Issue.” Zalaquett helped to create and then lead Chile’s Vicaria de la Solidaridad, an organization that defended those detained by the Pinochet regime and fiiled habeus corpus documents on behalf of the missing. He later served on Chile’s National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.
International Standards — Treaties and other Human Rights Instruments
- UN Treaty Collection. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006.
- Organization of American States. Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, 1994.
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Information page on the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, the treaty body charged with monitoring implementation of the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
- UN Human Rights Council. “Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances” (WGEID). (Note: As relayed on this official UN website, the Working Group consists of five experts serving in personal capacity to “examine questions relevant to enforced or involuntary disappearances of persons.” It is considered one of the Special Procedures of the UN and its mandate was most recently renewed in 2011.)
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- UN Human Rights Council. Annual reports by the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances.
- Amnesty International. Disappearances: A Workbook. New York: Amnesty International, 1981. (Note: published by Amnesty International USA, 1981 and available from used book sellers online. The first known effort to conceptualize the problem of “disappearances.”)
- Brody, Reed. “Commentary on the Draft Declaration on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances,” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, Vol 8 (1990): 381-94.
- Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. “Chapter 4: Disappearances.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Guest, Iain. Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances. “The Coalition.”
- Amnesty International, ‘Disappearances’ and Political Killings: A Manual for Action. Netherlands, 1994.
- International Committee of the Red Cross, Accompanying the Families of Missing Persons: A Practical Handbook. 2013.
- International Commission on Missing Persons, website landing page and “What We Do.”
Case Studies and Examples
- United States Institute of Peace. Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. (Note: Chapter II focuses on the 1974-77 period and describes in considerable detail the workings of the National Intelligence Directorate [pp. 615-631], including description of secret detention centers used for confinement and torture [631-646]. Individual cases of disappearance under the auspices of the National Intelligence Directorate [DINA] are documented on pages 661-812.)
- Human Rights Watch. “Mexico: Crisis of Enforced Disappearances,” 2013.
- National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. “Nunca Más: Report of Conadep.” Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria, 1984.
- Watchdog, “Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka, 2006-2013,” posted on Groundviews, Journalism for Citizens (Sri Lanka), January 2014.
- UN International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, “Without a Trace: Enforced Disappearances in Syria,” December 2013.
Multimedia Sources, including Films
- Missing. Directed by Costa Gavras. Universal Pictures, 1982.
- The Official Story. Directed by Luis Puenzo. Almi Pictures, 1985.
- Imagining Argentina. Directed by Christopher Hampton. Arenas Entertainment, 2003.
- The Judge and the General. Directed by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Leverton. PBS Point of View film, 2008.
- “Searching for Kikhia. A Daughter Tells the Story of Her Missing Father.” Independent documentary about Libyan statesman forcibly disappeared, trailer 2020.