Forced Disappearances Are Crimes Against Humanity That Can’t Be Justified


A young man stands by graffiti depicting people disappeared during the 1960-96 civil war, during the celebration of the Army Day, in Guatemala City, on June 30, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Johan ORDONEZ

By Paul Seils, vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice

On September 12, 1981, in downtown Tegucigalpa, Manfredo Velasquez was abducted in broad daylight by heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothes driving a white Ford without license plates. He was never seen again.

Manfredo was a student whose “activities” in a national student union were deemed by the Honduran junta to be dangerous for “national security.” The precise fate of Manfredo will never be known, but witnesses testified that he was almost certainly tortured and then killed by the security forces that took him. Seven years later, in a historic first judgment, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the government of Honduras responsible for Velasquez’ disappearance. However, forced disappearance continues as a state-sanctioned practice in many countries even today.

And it is not only the dictatorships of Latin America that were in thrall to the “benefits” of such approaches. The response of Assad’s regime to calls for reform and democracy in Syria included multiple incidents of forced disappearance. Systematic long-term detention practiced under Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gaddafi in Libya are also examples. Behind by the grandiose, Orwellian disguise of “extraordinary rendition,” the United States and many of its allies have been engaged in executing or colluding in a practice that is nothing other than forced disappearance.

The reason, it seems clear, for the practice of “extraordinary renditions” is to allow those disappeared to be subjected to treatment that would be plainly illegal in the US. Morally it is indefensible. Strategically it is nonsensical: what could be more self-defeating in a battle to defend values than to subvert them so completely in the face of attack. While the Obama administration has taken steps to limit the practice, some forms of it continue and there has been no attempt to reckon with past practices.

It is possible for all sorts of people to carry out forced disappearances, but our concern should be first and foremost with state actors. It is hard to imagine a more cowardly or terrifying abuse of state power than to subvert the most fundamental rights of an individual by disappearing them. Make no mistake – disappearance is a terror tactic – a tactic of terrorism. The means of its execution may become more sophisticated, but the fact that a state is behind it should make it more, not less reprehensible.

The aims of disappearance as a tactic are multiple: it rids the state of opponents, real or imagined; it says “you are nothing, your identity is nothing, your existence is nothing”, it inflicts massive cruelty on those disappeared to provide an extra layer of terror to those left behind; it leaves loved ones burdened for life, condemned to a twilight of fear-filled unknowing. It is hard to think of any carefully planned practice that could so perfectly encapsulate the capacity for human beings in power to debase themselves and dehumanize their victims.

From the day Manfredo Velazquez was taken his family tried to find out where he was but the legal system in his country made a mockery of his and his family’s rights. They could find out nothing.

The decision of the Inter American Court on Human Rights in the seminal “Velazquez Rodriguez” case, seven year’s after Manfredo was disappeared is, arguably, one of the most important court decisions on human rights. It established important standards on what State authorities had to do to make sure the practice of forced disappearances were stopped and in what states had to do to remedy any such violations.

At the heart of those remedies was the identification of the right to truth – that a victim or the victim’s relatives had a right to know what had happened and why; a right to justice – that those responsible for the violations and especially the organization systematic practice of forced disappearance should face justice; and that meaningful reparations should be made to the victims. Manfredo’s case, in many ways, is the first court case to set out the legal ideas that marked the birth of what we today know as transitional justice – the ways in which the rights of victims should be addressed in the wake of massive violations.

While the practice of forced disappearance as a state tactic has a long history, it came under the spotlight during the 1980’s when Argentina and then the Inter-American Human Rights system began to hold those responsible to account. August 30 has been recognized as the UN International Day of the Disappeared. One of the most significant developments in human rights protection of recent times was the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance which entered into force on 23 December 2010.

These are concrete manifestations of important developments, highlighting which, we hope, will help lead to the eradication of the practice.

The primary message of today must be that it has to stop. That such a practice is not acceptable, under any circumstances. But that is not enough. The legacies of disappearances need to be addressed – the families of the disappeared must have access to the facts – where were their loved ones taken, what happened and why; and those responsible must be held to account. Nothing can encourage such inhumanity so much as impunity.

Manfredo Velazquez never appeared after his Honduran captors abducted him, and it may be cold comfort to his loved ones that his case was a seminal moment in the protection of dissident voices –however palatable or reprehensible their views- around the globe. It is harder now than it was in the past for states to abuse the trust of power so grotesquely. Forced disappearance is a crime against humanity. The decisions made by politicians and officials authorizing such practices in different countries cannot be justified legally or morally. They must be held to account and be shown for what they are: enemies of a civilized society.