16 May 1997


16 May 1997

Press Briefing



The number of politically motivated disappearances worldwide was at least three times greater than official United Nations figures, the Chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Ivan Tosevski, said this afternoon at a press conference at Headquarters.

The Working Group is composed of five experts who serve in their personal capacities. Joining Mr. Tosevski -- who is from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- were members Jonas Foli of Ghana, Diego Garcia-Sayan of Peru, and Manfred Nowak of Austria. (The fifth member of the Working Group is Agha Hilaly of Pakistan.) Mr. Foli is also a member of the Human Rights Investigative Commission to Eastern Zaire.

In most countries, citizens did not know of the existence of the Working Group and so could not inform it, Mr. Tosevski told correspondents. Beyond that, victims of torture and disappearance did not submit their cases to any independent body, for fear of reprisal.

Mr. Tosevski said the phenomena of disappearances was political in nature, and those who disappeared were usually the opponents of existing governments. However, the basic approach of the Working Group was not political, but was primarily humanitarian. It only sought to discover whether disappeared persons were dead or alive.

Although that humanitarian approach had enabled the Working Group to establish close links with most governments, that did not mean that most of its cases had been clarified. There were still serious problems with most of the governments concerned, and the number of disappeared persons on the Working Group's list was increasing. However, generally speaking, there were less disappearances today than there were 10 or 15 years ago. The challenge for the Working Group was in establishing contacts with governments to determine accurately the numbers of disappeared persons.

Why was the number of disappearances in the Group's files increasing, even as the incidence of disappearances decreased? a correspondent asked. Mr. Nowak said the phenomenon of disappearances had begun in earnest in Latin America, between the 1960s and the 1980s. Although disappearance had decreased in that region, the problem had taken on a global dimension. Today, most disappearances took place in Asia. There had also been more than 20,000 disappearances in the former Yugoslavia. In addition, there was an unresolved backlog of cases dating back as far as the 1970s.

Mr. Garcia-Sayan said there had been no new cases in countries like Argentina, El Salvador or Guatemala. What explained the increased figures was that many areas which had not been analysed by the Working Group in the past were now being considered. For example, cases involving Iraq and Sri Lanka indicated the disappearance of some 20,000 to 25,000 persons.

A correspondent asked why disappearances could not be investigated in Zaire, and which Asian countries had shown an increase in disappearances. Mr. Foli said the Working Group did not investigate disappearances automatically. Cases meeting certain criteria had to be brought to its attention. The Working Group had heard rumours of disappearances in Zaire, but would not work on those cases in earnest until it could begin gathering testimony and reports from witnesses.

Mr. Nowak said that more than 16,000 persons had disappeared in Iraq. In Sri Lanka, some 12,000 had disappeared. In recent years, the phenomenon of disappearances had begun in India and in south-eastern Turkey, chiefly in the context of armed conflict. China, Pakistan and Syria had also seen increased levels of disappearances.

To another question on Zaire, Mr. Nowak said the Working Group only had in its files cases brought to its attention by family members or non- governmental organizations. That was why they believed that the actual numbers of disappearances might be higher than their present statistics suggested. In Rwanda, for example, there had been very high numbers of disappearances, but the Working Group had only a few cases under investigation.

The Working Group had enjoyed greater access in the former Yugoslavia, he went on to say. That was why they believed the figure of 20,000 disappeared persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina and up to 5,000 in Croatia was accurate. In China, they were investigating 73 cases; in India 255; in Indonesia 428; in Iran 509; in Lebanon, 286; in Pakistan 60; in the Philippines, 649.

Asked how the Working Group organized its work, Mr. Tosevski said they met three times a year and reported annually to the Commission on Human Rights. A secretariat processed reports of disappearances and the Working Group made determinations as to which ones were admissible. It had established criteria and standards regarding which cases could be brought to the attention of governments. The Working Group received many more allegations than met its standards -- another reason the number of actual disappearances was probably higher than their figures indicated.

Continuing, Mr. Tosevski said that among the criteria the Group required was that it should know the names and addresses of the missing persons, together with the identity of the forces responsible for their disappearance -- whether police, military forces or other government agencies. The Group

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investigated disappearances which resulted from government rather than private actions.

The mandate of the Working Group was established by the Commission on Human Rights when it created the Group in 1980, Mr. Garcia-Sayan said. Its role was to establish dialogue with the alleged responsible parties, usually the governments. Its work would be politically and legally difficult if it were to attempt such dialogue with irregular forces, such as terrorist groups or criminal gangs. To do that would be to open a Pandora's box.

It was because of that limitation on its mandate that the Working Group had decided not to investigate many of the disappearances in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Nowak added. It would achieve little, for example, if the Working Group were to approach the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding disappearances committed by Bosnian Serb forces.

The Working Group was not a tribunal, Mr. Garcia-Sayan said. Its role was not to make final determinations as to whether or not governments were responsible. Rather, it played a humanitarian role, meeting with governments and exchanging information with them. In its 17 years of existence, the Working Group had clarified more than 2,500 cases. That meant locating the whereabouts of the disappeared persons, whether they were dead or alive. It many cases, it was difficult to clarify the cases because remains of the dead were missing.

The Working Group was trying to establish a system by which governments might provide some sort of compensation to the survivors, he added. That kind of arrangement had worked in Latin America and might be applied elsewhere. The Working Group had a total of 40,000 cases pending in its files.

The Working Group had to determine which cases were genuine, Mr. Nowak said. The classic case of a disappearance, in which someone knocks on one's door at three in the morning, leaves witnesses. Those type of disappearances were usually carried by plain-clothes police who kidnapped persons and carried them to secret detention centres. In such a case, the Working Group would have to know the identities of the person in question and the witnesses, and when the person was last seen. That was necessary if it was to have a fair chance of clarifying the case.

The efforts of the Working Group had not been applied in certain regions, he added. An example was Cyprus, where there had been high numbers of disappearances following the events of 1974.

Asked about the experience of the Human Rights Investigative Commission to Eastern Zaire, Mr. Foli said Commission members had arrived in Kigali on 3 May. They then set out with the local United Nations Coordinator for eastern Zaire, with the intention of visiting Goma, Kisangani and Lubumbashi to obtain clearance for their mission. That clearance was never been given.

Press Conference on Disappearances - 4 - 16 May 1997

The Commission team came to understand that the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo/Zaire (ADFL) was setting conditions for their entry. It did not want Roberto Garretón, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Zaire, to participate, but it wanted its own national observers to be involved, including a lawyer, an army officer, a forensic expert and a surgeon. It wanted the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to send observers as members of a joint mission, and also wanted to examine the curricula vitae of the five-member Argentine team of forensic experts.

Those conditions seemed far-reaching, he went on to say. The Investigative Commission decided that they should not stray from the mandate given by the Human Rights Commission. Letters were written to various parties in the region, as well as in Geneva and New York, to no avail. It had not even been possible to arrange a meeting with the General Commissioner for Justice of the ADFL -- the de facto government of the area. After one week in Kigali, they had returned to their various posts.

Apart from the ADFL's insistence that Mr. Garretón not participate, what were the Investigative Commission's objections to the Alliance's other conditions? a correspondent asked. Mr. Foli said the ADFL had prior knowledge of their visit and had not raised any objections. Once the team arrived in the region, the ADFL seemed to want to alter its mandate. The Investigative Commission had attempted to meet them half way by reinterpreting their mandate without fundamentally altering it, but the ADFL would not accept the compromise.

Asked if the Working Group had any information on the honourary President of the United Nations Correspondents Association who disappeared in southern Lebanon 12 years ago, Mr. Tosevski said he was unaware of the case.

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For information media. Not an official record.