30 August 2021
Enforced disappearances may occur anywhere and at any time. They are not isolated phenomena, nor are they associated with a particular region, period of time, or cultural, social or political background, although each of these circumstances, individually or in synergy, may influence the occurrence and frequency of enforced disappearances. Knowing this, appropriate preventive measures and efficient action by individual States and the international community may prevent enforced disappearances from happening in a persistent manner. Such efforts can also ensure proper penalties for those who commit this crime, together with adequate protection, assistance and support for victims and their families.

The right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance was first recognized in 1992 through the adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The implementation of the Declaration is monitored by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), which operates under the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Systematic work towards the eradication and prevention of enforced disappearance took a major step forward in 2006 with the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). For the purposes of the Convention, enforced disappearance was defined 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.”

ICPPED provides for the right to access truth and justice for all victims of enforced disappearance and allows them to take an active role in the process of searching for their loved ones as well as the investigation of cases. It also guarantees victims the right to be protected and supported in their daily struggle, and in terms of their socioeconomic rights. The Convention serves as a guide for victims but also for States to take specific actions on each of these issues.

Since 2011, these processes have been overseen by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED), composed of 10 independent experts who unselfishly share their knowledge, time and dedication with those who need it the most—the victims of enforced disappearance. In addition to reviewing the reports of the States parties to the Convention and monitoring the implementation of the recommendations provided to the States parties, the Committee conducts its daily work on Urgent Actions. The significant increase of Urgent Action requests submitted to the Committee is particularly illustrative of the immediate need to deal with enforced disappearances across the world. As of 8 June 2021, the Committee had registered a total of 1,193 Urgent Actions related to 23 States parties. These represent an increase of 429 Urgent Actions since June 2019, but still doesn’t show the actual figures of enforced disappearances around the world.

As the circumstances of enforced disappearances evolve over time, CED makes significant efforts to proactively address new challenges and to assist victims and States in a timely manner. Recognizing the importance of the urgent and efficient search for disappeared persons, the Committee, in 2019, adopted Guiding principles for the search for disappeared persons, which provide step-by-step guidance for the process. As part of its work to protect those who suffer reprisal or intimidation for addressing the Committee in relation to particular cases or a country’s state of play with regard to enforced disappearances, the Committee, in 2021, adopted its Guidelines to prevent and address intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups cooperating with it.

Logo of the Regional Coordination of the Associations of the Family Members of Missing Persons. Image provided by author.

Within its competence, CED also operates under the country visit procedure developed to closely monitor situations in which it receives reliable information indicating that a State party is seriously violating the provisions of the Convention. Such visits are essential mechanisms for enhancing cooperation between the Committee and States parties concerned to eradicate and prevent enforced disappearances.

Twenty months after its emergence, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, bringing great unforeseen challenges in various segments of everyday life. Like other human rights mechanisms, the Committee’s work has been widely affected by the pandemic. On one hand, COVID-19 has increased vulnerability to enforced disappearance, creating new contexts in which the crime may occur, and exacerbated the impact on victims and their relatives. The pandemic has also prevented the Committee from conducting in-person meetings. However, while facing numerous challenges associated with the fact that some Committee members were affected by COVID-19, along with technical problems and obstacles related to time-zone differences, in May 2020, CED became the first United Nations treaty body to meet online and the first to examine a State party online. This practice continued in September 2020 and March 2021, when the Committee examined three State parties’ reports, the most of any treaty body in a single online session. It also adopted two reports on Urgent Actions, one decision on an individual communication and one report on follow-up to views. Online meetings and related modalities have resulted in an increased workload and burdensome working hours for the Committee’s members, and required all parties involved to adapt to particularly demanding and challenging conditions.

Evolving circumstances of enforced disappearances also call for the close cooperation and synergy of the United Nations human rights mechanisms, national human rights institutions, civil society and the academic community to ensure comprehensive and better targeted and coordinated approaches to the most pressing issues and to the most vulnerable categories of victims. The Committee’s role is not to criticize States or delegitimize their actions, but rather to support them in the implementation of their Convention obligations related to their efforts to punish perpetrators, promote the rights of victims and prevent enforced disappearances in the future.

Therefore, the universality of ICPPED ratification and continuous awareness-raising should be seen as the most powerful preconditions of an efficient fight against enforced disappearance. However, despite the efforts of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  to double the number of ICPPED ratifications by 2020, so far, only 64 States have ratified the Convention and 48 States have signed it, while 86 States have not made any action in this regard. Among those who have ratified the Convention, only 23 States have accepted the competence of the Committee to examine individual complaints and/or interstate communications. As a result, many victims do not know about the Convention or about the Committee’s procedure and/or simply cannot benefit from them because the State concerned has not ratified the Convention. The low level of ratification also considerably limits the Committee’s ability to exercise its role in preventing and combating enforced disappearances globally. With this in mind, at the beginning of the second decade of ICPPED implementation, the joint action of OHCHR, CED, WGEID, States parties, civil society and the academic community is needed in order to foster ratification processes and raise awareness on enforced disappearances around the world.


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