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September 19, 2004 

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International Day of the Disappeared

Muhammad Amirul Haq Tuhin

30 August is commemorated as International Day of Disappeared. 'Disappeareds' are people who have been taken into custody by agents of the state, yet whose whereabouts and fate are concealed and whose custody is denied. The Latin American non-governmental organisation FEDEFAM, Federation Latin-Americana de Asociasiones de Familieres de Detenidos-Disaparecidos, started the custom of commemorating the Day and it is now marked all around the world. FEDEFAM was formed by associations of relatives of the disappeared in countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, which have or are currently practising forced disappearance.

A forced disappearance consists of a kidnapping, carried out by agents of the state or organised groups of private individuals who act with state support or tolerance in which the victim disappears. Authorities neither accept responsibility for the deed, nor account for the whereabouts of the victim. Forced disappearance was first used as a form of political repression in Latin America during the 1960s. During World War II, the Nazis practised a similar form of repression, which, however, recognised the detention of the victim. The first Latin American countries to practice forced disappearance were Haiti and Guatemala. It is estimated that between 1966 to 1986 some 90,000 people disappeared in countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Haiti. This figure includes young children and babies born during their mothers' detention. Forced disappearance with refined technique was applied in other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia later.

According to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance, proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 47/133 of 18 December 1992, a forced disappearance occurs when "persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived at their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organised groups or private individuals acting on behalf of or with the support, direct or indirect consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law". A disappearance is a doubly paralysing form of suffering: for the victims, frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives, and for their family members, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones, their emotions alternating between hope and despairs, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come. The practice of forced disappearance of persons infringes upon an entire range of human rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and set out in both international Covenants on Human Rights as well as in other major international human rights instruments. A forced disappearance violates a series of fundamental and human rights including the right to liberty and security, the right to be recognised everywhere as a person before the law, the right to legal defence and the right not to be subjected to torture. In addition, forced disappearance constitutes a grave threat to the right to life.

Although disappearances are associated, in the public perception, with the authoritarian military governments of previous decades, sadly they are not exclusive of them and continue to occur to this day. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances observes that now a days forced disappearances occur in the context of much more complex situations of internal conflict generating violence, humanitarian crisis, and human rights violations. This Working Group was established by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1980 to assist the relatives of disappeared persons in ascertaining their fate and whereabouts and to act as a channel for communication between the families and governments concerned. The Working Group received reports from reputable non-governmental organisations of rising number of disappearances occurring in countries like Nepal, Colombia and the Russian Federation. While in 2003, the Working Group transmitted 18 cases of alleged enforced disappearances to the government of Nepal; in the first half of 2004 this number had risen to 130. New cases are reported from the Russian Federation, where the working group is aware of more than 270 cases in which the fate and whereabouts of the victims are still unknown. The fate of more than 890 disappeared people is still to be clarified in Colombia.

On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed concern over the occurrences of disappearance reaffirming it as a crime with severe consequences not only for victims and for relatives and friends of the victim, but also for entire societies and for the credibility of States. It called upon all governments to take appropriate actions to bring an end to the practice of secret detentions.

Our Subcontinent is also familiar with the offence of disappearance. In India an alarming number of forced disappearances by state agencies have occurred. Especially we have to mention the name of the states of Kashmir, Asam and others where movement for independence prevails. Bangladesh is not totally inexperienced of forced disappearance. There are number of reported and unreported cases of mass scale disappearance in the region of Chittagong Hill Tracts. The disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, the leader of the Hill Women's Federation is a shameful example of such offence. So the International Day of the Disappeared has also its significance in Bangladesh.

Muhammad Amirul Haq Tuhin working with Ain Shalish Kendro.


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