Some men arrive. They force their way into a family’s home, rich or poor, house, hovel or hut, in a city or in a village, anywhere. They come at any time of the day or night, usually in plain clothes, sometimes in uniform, always carrying weapons. Giving no reasons, producing no arrest warrant, frequently without saying who they are or on whose authority they are acting, they drag off one or more members of the family towards a car, using violence in the process if necessary.
This is often the first act in the drama of an enforced or involuntary disappearance, a particularly heinous violation of human rights and an international crime. According to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 47/133 of 18 December 1992 as a body of principles for all States, an enforced disappearance occurs when “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized 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” (preamble).
A disappearance has a doubly paralysing impact: on the victims, frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives, and on their families, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones, their emotions alternating between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come. The victims are well aware that their families do not know what has become of them and that the chances are slim that anyone will come to their aid. Having been removed from the protective precinct of the law and “disappeared” from society, they are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors. Even if death is not the final outcome and the victim is eventually released from the nightmare, the physical and psychological scars of this form of dehumanization and the brutality and torture which often accompany it remain.
The family and friends of disappeared persons experience slow mental anguish, not knowing whether the victim is still alive and, if so, where he or she is being held, under what conditions, and in what state of health.
Aware, furthermore, that they, too, are threatened, that they may suffer the same fate themselves and that searching for the truth may expose them to even greater danger.
The family’s distress is frequently compounded by the material consequences of the disappearance. The disappeared person is often the family’s main breadwinner. He or she may be the only member of the family able to cultivate the crops or run the family business. The emotional upheaval is thus exacerbated by material deprivation, made more acute by the costs incurred should they decide to undertake a search. Furthermore, they do not know when—if ever—their loved one is going to return, which makes it difficult for them to adapt to the new situation. In some cases, national legislation may make it impossible to draw a pension or receive other means of support in the absence of a death certificate. Economic and social marginalization is frequently the result.
Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole.
Enforced disappearance has become a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can nowadays be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents. Of particular concern is the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance; the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations; and the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearance. Special attention must also be paid to specific groups of especially vulnerable people, like children and people with disabilities.