WORLD: Statement of a group of human rights activists and the AHRC on the International Day of the Disappeared – the need for urgent and serious action to prevent forced disappearances

A group of 25 human rights activists and defenders from Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand who gathered for the Human Rights School Session of the Asian Human Rights Commission for 2007 wish to express their deepest solidarity with the victims and families of forced disappearances and wish to add their concerns for a greater effort by the states, civil society and the international community to eliminate the forced disappearances which are taking place at large scale in many countries of Asia.

August 30th is the International Day of the Disappeared. This annual commemoration day was created to draw attention to the fate of individuals who have been subjected to forced disappearances. Some of these individuals have been imprisoned at places which are unknown to their relatives or their legal representatives. Many of them have been killed after arrest and the manner of their killings and their place of burials also remain unknown. In all cases of disappearances the state is responsible, either by the direct causing of forced disappearances by its agents or it is indirectly responsible as it is unable to explain to the families of the disappeared the whereabouts of persons who have gone missing.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines disappearances as follows:

Article 2
For the purposes of this Convention, Ā“enforced disappearanceĀ” is considered to be 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.

In many countries of Asia forced disappearances have taken place in the recent past or are taking place at present with impunity. While Sri Lanka heads the list in such infamous acts there are many other countries that also have a very high number of forced disappearances. These are: Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Philippines and several parts of India; they are among the countries where forced disappearances have taken place in very large scale and where the state has not taken any significant action either to bring the perpetrators to justice or to stop the practice. In fact, the state is directly or indirectly acting to encourage such practices and actions. Civil society, including those of the families of the disappeared and their representatives are seriously obstructed by various forms of intimidation including threats to life and property.

The Asian experience shows that forced disappearances are accompanied with legitimising of summary killings of those the state consider to be its mortal enemies. High propaganda activities justifying summary disposal of those considered to be enemies of the state precedes, accompanies and follows forced disappearances. The states in several countries more frequently claim the right to deal with certain categories of persons outside the process of justice. Complaints on forced disappearances seldom lead to serious investigations.

Those who engage in the causing of forced disappearances need to know that they will not be subjected to serious investigations. The state often provides this assurance by setting up deliberate schemes to discourage investigations into disappearances. The states sometimes try to provide commissions outside the normal judicial process of the country to deal with the issue. Such commissions are often nothing more that public relations exercises to give the state the appearance of having taken some action, while in fact the state does all it can to encourage inaction regarding complaints.

Prosecutors in many countries are complicit in preventing action against disappearances. Often prosecutors also adopt the same political and ideological stances by which the state propaganda machines justify forced disappearances. The prosecutors often try to stop proper prosecutions even in cases where evidence is available to pinpoint the perpetrators. Delayed prosecutions and often handling of such prosecutions in a careless manner leads to acquittals. Often even the judicial mindset in many places has not been sensitized to deal with forced disappearances as heinous crimes. Under these circumstances judges often make excuses on behalf of the accused who are state agents treating them as a different category from the normal accused in criminal trials. In this way the very process of a criminal trial itself becomes trivialised.

There are grave frustrations in civil society in the countries we have mentioned on state complicity and in. However, such protests have not reached the level of adequate organisation in order to have a serious impact on mentality and policy changes to bring about strong action to stop this practice. All civil society organisations in the region need to make a more determined effort to develop strong alliances and networks in order to document disappearances, to seek policy changes to prevent and to prosecute this crime.

It can also be said that international action to stop forced disappearances in the Asian region has not been adequate and that such action can even be charaterised as far too casual, trivial and random. The international discourse on disappearances in many countries of the world needs to be sharpened. Certainly it needs to be sharpened with regard to forced disappearances in the Asian region. There is a moral legitimacy to expect that the United Nations human rights agencies will play a more active role in preventing disappearances and to prosecute the perpetrators in the region.