Wednesday (23 December), sees the newest among the core international human rights instruments, turns 10-years old.

On 23 December 2010, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance entered into force, representing a historic step in the fight against enforced disappearance and a beacon of hope to many who have despaired for the fate of their loved ones.

During 2020, with the most challenging health crisis of our generation, the protection of public health has become an overriding priority.

Under such circumstances, it is even more challenging to stand up for human rights, but as the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has said: “human rights cannot be an afterthought in the times of crises”.

Unfortunately, enforced disappearances are continuing to occur around the world and there is an additional risk of states using the pandemic and associated states of emergency as cover for enforced disappearances.

The current circumstances are particularly concerning in relation to recent disappearances in which the immediate intervention of state authorities is required to search for the disappeared person.

Enforced disappearance has been frequently projected as a strategy to spread terror in the society.

Last century the phenomenon has been seen connected to Latin America military dictatorships, where it was used as an organised method in order to exterminate political opponents.

The tragic history of enforced disappearance and its legacy in the region, has created the perception that the phenomenon has simply a regional dimension and it belongs to the past.

The experience at the UN guides us to confirm that these patterns do not match with the sad reality across the globe. The practice of enforced disappearance is not belonging to the past, it has not decreased and no region can claim to be immune from this heinous crime.

As the root causes of the phenomenon have not completely changed, we see the phenomenon reappeared in the context of national security, the fight against terrorism, combating drug trafficking or organised crime, as well as in the context of migration.

This concerns all states and all continents.

Europe has not been spared, thousands of persons have been subject of enforced disappearances and are still missing due to repressive regimes and past or ongoing conflicts.

It would be an error for the old democracies to consider that enforced disappearances take place only under “dictatorship”. Citizens of old democracies can become victims of enforced disappearance in third countries, and persons under their domestic jurisdiction can become victims, with or without the complicity of state agents.

The invisibility of the victims of enforced disappearance must not lead to silence on the suffering of the victims and their loved ones.

All victims have the right to know the truth, which has an individual and collective dimension.

Society at large is entitled to know about the perpetration of serious human rights violations.

States must investigate cases of enforced disappearances, establish the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared persons, identity and prosecute those responsible and give redress to the victims.

Since it entered into force, the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances has filled an important legal void in the international system by providing a binding legal instrument to fight enforced disappearances.

During these ten years as advancement in the implementation of the convention can be mentioned, it is true that some challenges continue to persist.

One of the most important is linked with the universal ratification of the convention.

As of today, there are 63 states parties and 98 signatories to the convention. It is a fact that the pace of ratifications remains slow and the point where the convention can show its full potential has not been reached.

Just 13 EU signatories

Having only 13 EU countries in the ratification list is regrettable.

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the convention, it is time to raise awareness on the issue of enforced disappearance and to appeal to European countries to live up to their responsibilities, to lead by example, to recognise the contemporary value of the goals and objectives of the convention and to ratify it without delay.

There is no valid excuse for not ratifying the convention, especially negligence or underestimation cannot be either a justification.

Securing a world free of enforced disappearance will be a difficult mission because of the complexity and the political nature of this crime, but there is no other option, even a single case of enforced disappearance should not be accepted.

The letter and the spirit of the convention is clear, no reason or circumstance can be invoked or justify enforced disappearance, it is unacceptable today as it was decades ago when it first came to the attention of international community.

Amnesty International’s South Asia Director Mr. Biraj Patnaik has recognised the track record of South Asian Countries and their inability to not ratify the treaty yet. “South Asia has a particularly gruesome record when it comes to enforced disappearances, with some governments persisting with the practice while others have failed to provide answers to those who have waited years for them. It is about time that governments in the region properly investigate and punish cases of enforced disappearances and consign this practice to the past.”

In India, reports of enforced disappearances are largely from areas declared “disturbed” under the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts (AFSPA), like Kashmir and Manipur. India has not made enforced disappearances a specific criminal offence under the Indian penal code. As a result, families of the disappeared have to file complaints under general provisions of Indian criminal law. Despite signing the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances on February 6, 2007, India is yet to ratify it.

AFSPA has been widely criticised because of various human right violations like inhuman treatment, torture, fake encounters, arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances against which people have been protesting, probably the longest of it was the hunger strike by Irom Chanu Sharmila from Manipur. Worse still, the law in force in Manipur since the early 1950s ensures an immunity to those in positions of power, the army and paramilitary.

Unfortunately, according to the UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: India, dated May 1, 2017, at the United Nations Review in Geneva, India managed to not accept its key recommendations and did not agree to repeal AFSPA quoting Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association v Union of India (2016) where the Court held that no military personnel could walk scot-free unless a thorough inquiry had been carried out on his conduct thus giving them no blanket immunity. India accepted the ongoing debate around this controversial enactment but dismissed the seriousness of the effect and misuse of it in the disturbed areas. This apathy has also led to a crumbling confidence of people on the State authorities.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch suggested that around 90 people were made to forcibly disappear in 2016 in Bangladesh alone. The numbers are more now. Although most of these cases were short-term disappearances, with the individual presented in court weeks later after the abduction, 21 people were later found dead, and nine people remain unaccounted for. Even after such aggressive militancy, Bangladesh is not even a signatory.  

Afghanistan, torpified by armed conflicts over four decades, with tens of thousands being forcibly disappeared when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in the late 1970s, have failed to ratify the Convention too. Since the 1980s, Amnesty International estimates there have been at least 60,000 and as many as 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka. The victims include Sinhalese young people who were either killed or forcibly disappeared by government death squads on suspicion of leftist links in 1989 and 1990.

Human rights defenders, aid workers, journalists, government critics, and prominent community leaders and activists who have been suspected of links to the LTTE have disappeared facilitated by the police, military and paramilitary operatives during the conflict from 1983 to 2009. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has more than 700 pending cases from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s State Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has received reports of hundreds more, from across the country as of 2019. Both the countries have failed to acquire the membership of this Convention.

Norway is the latest country to have ratified the Convention on August 22, 2019.