By Nyasha Laing
“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.”
In October 1982, in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, when the youngest of her two children was 3 years old, Wadad Halwani’s husband was abducted from their home. A few weeks later, Halwani made a famous radio call to other wives and mothers of missing loved ones who were feeling helpless, outraged, and abandoned. Hundreds of these women responded to the call, and within days they had formed the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing.
It took over 36 years of persistent organizing, advocacy, and sacrifice in the name of their loved ones. But on November 12, 2018, the committee celebrated a major victory with the passage of Law 105. This landmark legislation restores the right to truth about the fate of the missing and disappeared and sets out guidelines for the establishment of a search. In recent months, Halwani and other members of the committee have kept the law’s implementation in focus. And they have continued to demand more sweeping institutional reforms to prevent the state from disappearing victims in the future, and to bring a more inclusive peace.
Despite the breakthrough victory in Lebanon, the trend of missing and disappeared persons due to conflict remains more prevalent than ever today. Many governments around the world have remained undeterred in their abuse of power to invade a home or community and remove persons deemed to be a threat, strip them of their rights, and prevent all access to information about their condition or whereabouts. More likely than not, there is torture. All of these make disappearance a particularly heinous violation of human rights and a crime under international law.
In Syria, forcible disappearances are linked to systematic abuse in detention centers often operated by the security branches and an overall climate of impunity. At least 143,176 individuals have been detained or forcibly disappeared since 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. In Colombia, which has established a special Search Unit for the Missing and Disappeared in 2015 as part of the peace negotiations ending its 50-year conflict, an estimated 83,000 persons have been identified as missing or disappeared. In Iraq, systemic disappearances emerged from the changing military situation; mass graves discovered in 2014 are still largely inaccessible. In Sri Lanka, as many as 84 percent of people in the Northeast have had a family member detained. And, according to reports, there have been deliberate and systematic efforts to destroy the remains of persons in Spain, Iran, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.
These sorts of figures are often difficult to come by, precisely because of the nature of the crime and the unwillingness of the state apparatus to offer any means for identifying persons who remain in custody or have been killed. The intractable problem has received global attention largely due to the efforts of family members who often risk their lives in pursuit of the right to know and to bury their loved ones.
The Context for Enforced Disappearances
Enforced disappearance surfaced historically as a distinct tool of terror and repression. In Lebanon, for example, its occurrence stems from a range of repressive policies dating back to the 1970’s, which targeted minorities and dissident groups.
In Syria, the authoritarian state, created several decades ago by Hafaz al Assad and perpetuated by his son Bashar Assad, commonly used torture and political detention as tactics of repression, which led to increased disappearances. “You were at risk if you said something about the government...or the heads of the army, or the heads of the security branches...There are many documented stories of people paying big amounts of money just to have confirmation or see their loved ones,” said Mahmoud Bastati, Communications Director of Dawlaty, an organization that advocates for Syrian families.
In the years leading up to the civil uprising in 2011, the Syrian regime had pursued a systematic policy of arbitrary detention and torture in its network of jails and secret prisons. In addition, families and outside observers were and remain without access to victims held there, enabling gross human rights abuses.
The economic hardships, psychological fragility, exploitation, and uncertainty that these vulnerable families face — as well as the social disruption of communities due to the prolonged absence of family members — perpetuate the powerlessness of victims in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. As ICTJ research has revealed, women are particularly at risk.
For Halwani in Lebanon, there was the challenge of taking on a second job to cover school fees and other bills for which her husband had been responsible, while also caring for her two children. It was difficult to find a job that did not conflict with her child care responsibilities. There were also security concerns that made her worry daily about being away from her children.
“Sometimes I used to think, ‘I wish I could put them back in my womb until everything is safe and peaceful and then I would bring them back,’” said Halwani. Many of the members of the Committee faced similar challenges. They also told stories of abuse and exploitation, such as being offered erroneous or non-existent information on the whereabouts of a loved one in exchange for money or sexual favors.
In Syria, female relatives — even those who have received information about their loved ones — remain uncertain about their futures. In 2018 and 2019, the government publicly confirmed the deaths of a small number of detainees by issuing selected death certificates. But the documents did not bring closure to many. Widows had trouble trusting a certificate in which the cause of death was listed as a heart attack, for example, when different circumstances or causes were likely and no additional information was shared by the authorities. This only increased exasperation of families who might never know the truth.
Still thousands of others remain unaccounted for. Without an official document recognizing the disappearance, their wives cannot receive aid or other services from humanitarian organizations, most of whom prioritize widows. And, according to a civil society report, due to local laws, they are unable to claim inheritance and property; remarry; transfer housing, land, and other property to themselves; obtain formal custody over their children; or even relocate.
The burdens faced by so many families of the disappeared relegate them to a sphere where they remain invisible. The ongoing fear and trauma faced by Syrian women across this spectrum is also isolating – another form of silent repression.
Saying Their Names
It is in these contexts that the power of women telling their stories and those of their loved ones cannot be overstated. In Lebanon, the Taif Agreement signed in 1989 ended the war, but it made no mention of the thousands of missing and disappeared persons.
“In the first two to three years of the movement, we used to meet every single day and have demonstrations,” Halwani said. “We became very close to each other...There were no secrets. We felt like we were so strong, and we felt like we had nothing to lose.”
Halwani and the members of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing continued to protest, lobby, and advocate. They screened movies and organized weekly sit-ins in front of the council of ministers and parliament. They contacted presidents, prime ministers, ministers of justice, members of the Human Rights Parliamentary Committee, and other officials.
In 1999 and 2000, in the wake of the declaration of peace and the signing of the Taif Agreement, the committee had an important breakthrough. It was able to gather friends and supporters for its cause and with them launch a campaign animated by the committee's longstanding demand for the right to know. Their efforts helped to galvanize the public and influence the Lebanese government to finally establish the first commission to investigate the fate of the missing in 2000.
Unfortunately, the state-led commission released a toothless report that stated that efforts to find missing persons who were alive had not been fruitful. However, the report found that there were mass graves in a number of areas, some of which were identified. “Despite the harshness of the matter, the families realized after the emotional storm calmed down that we had forced the state to acknowledge, for the very first time, the existence of mass graves and war crimes,” Halwani said.
“We should not forget that we were working in a very difficult context that continues today — sectarianism and political divisions during the war and even during the ‘peace,’” said Halwani. “But the committee was far from all that since it includes members from different religions and sects....This is what gives it power.’”
The committee continued to grow the movement and expand its network, and even began to advocate internationally. Despite a few attempts by state actors in 2001 and 2005 to revisit the issues of the missing and disappeared, there was little meaningful progress on the issue and no state action was actually initiated.
Fast forward to 2018. The war had been over for 28 years when the legislature proposed Law 105. Organizations associated with families of the missing developed the draft law, with technical, logistical, and financial input from ICTJ and others throughout the process, and they jointly submitted it to parliament in April 2014. It took four more years, as various proposals, cases, and petitions helped to rally public support and political will.
When the legislation finally passed, it reinforced the claims of the families and legally recognized their right to truth. Its passage also represented a clear acknowledgment by the Lebanese state that victims have been wronged and are entitled to redress. Under its provisions, families have the right to know the fate of their missing or forcibly disappeared loved ones, including their current whereabouts in case of detention or kidnapping; or, if dead, the location of their remains. The right to truth includes the right to the recovery, exhumation, examination, and identification of remains, and to burial sites that are located and marked. Through truth and public acknowledgment of the acts committed by the state or third parties, relatives hope to restore not only their own dignity, but that of the disappeared.
While far from over, the Lebanese story can offer some bittersweet hope to Syrians who are seeking information about the fate and location of their loved ones, and, if alive, the right visit or contact them. The grueling conflict in Syria has placed a tremendous burden on these families, but civil society groups are helping them come to grips with their situation and shine the light on their otherwise invisible loved ones. Dawlaty works with groups outside Syria such as Families for Freedom (FFF), a network of displaced Syrian families, to support them in their advocacy efforts, strengthen their networks, and organize members dispersed across many countries. Inside Syria, Dawlaty mainly helps families access the legal system, while partner organizations, such as Women Now for Development, focus on providing them with needed support services.
The core group of 10 women leading FFF has organized a number of advocacy-related trips to meet with international policymakers in Geneva and Brussels, raise awareness about their right to the truth, and put pressure on both sides of the conflict to institute a plan of action for mass graves.
FFF uses all the tools at their disposal, including social media, email blasts, and face-to-face meetings, wherever possible, to facilitate communication among the families and develop a clear and coordinated strategy. “We researched through focus groups and asked a lot of questions in order to frame the issues,” said Bastati. “The goal for them is to have the tools and the capacity to advocate for their own issues and their own demands, based on their own priorities.”
“Women standing together are powerful,” Bastati continued. “But it’s not just the movement; it’s the community around the cause, saying, ‘We demand our loved ones, the right to truth, their release, and accountability.’”
Reforming Broken Systems
If implemented correctly, the law in Lebanon could serve as a concrete example to advance justice efforts in countries like Syria. But as in many fragile states where conflict is ongoing and legal governance has been compromised, Syria will need a major overhaul of its justice systems to ensure greater protections. In other countries where domestic criminal laws provide for only kidnapping or abduction — and not for the specific crime of enforced disappearance, which implies an element of systematic state abuse — new laws will also be required.
The challenges have left families of the disappeared and their allies with few tools at the national level. They must instead rely on grassroots advocacy and the force of international instruments, such as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED), to advance the rights of the disappeared and their relatives.
Yet while the principles codified in the CED are largely included in customary international law, the CED itself has not been universally adopted, with no more than 60 countries having ratified it. Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria, and the United States are among the countries that have not and that are unlikely to do so in the near future.
Moreover, the narrow legal definition under the CED does not cover the variety of cases of missing and detained individuals that families are facing in conflict zones around the world. Hope for change came this past July, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2474, the first ever to specifically address cases of persons reported as missing in armed conflict.
But the magnitude of the challenges ahead is daunting for all stakeholders, including governments, which bear the primary responsibility for monitoring, investigating, and prosecuting human rights violations within their jurisdictions. Governments also have the task of devising programs to help families move on with their lives, and removing systemic corruption and dysfunction from security, prison, police, justice, and other relevant state branches.
Meanwhile, archiving and oral history projects — such as the Syrian Oral History Archive, a collection of first-person testimonies from women — are helping victims pursue truth and their right to know. Documentary films like The Silence of Others as well as art, photography, and memorialization projects are giving advocates a public platform and transforming public discourse in countries like Argentina, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Yemen, and Libya. The struggle has also given rise to creative solutions. In Uruguay, activists take to Twitter every year in the name of the disappeared. In Colombia, a dollmaker is bringing the stories of victims to life through her creations. The groundswell of these efforts is helping to change narratives globally, despite the slow arc of policy change that often requires decades, even lifetimes. We stand in awe of these changemakers.
Above all, we salute the disappeared everywhere – and the loved ones who honor them – on this Day of the Disappeared.
PHOTO: Adnan Halwani sits on the balcony with his wife Wadad and his two sons in Beirut, Lebanon. Both Adnan and Wadad were teachers at a public school in the city. Adnan was also an active member of the Lebanese Communist Party. (Courtesy of the Wadad Halwani)