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Forced disappearance

A forced disappearance occurs when force is used to cause a person to vanish from public view, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty (and/or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person), thereby placing the victim outside the protection of law.

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force on 1 July 2002, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a "forced disappearance" qualifies as a crime against humanity, and thus is not subject to a statute of limitation.

On December 20, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Often forced disappearance implies murder. The victim in such a case is first kidnapped, then illegally detained, often tortured, then killed, and the corpse is then hidden. Typically, a murder will be surreptitious, with the body disposed of in such a way as to prevent it ever being found, so the person apparently vanishes. The party committing the murder has deniability, as there is no body to prove that the victim is actually dead.

Linguistic considerations

In the case of forced disappearance, the word disappear, which is properly an intransitive verb, is often used transitively. Victims, who are those who have disappeared, or the disappeared, are said to have been disappeared, rather than the more usual have disappeared. The perpetrators have disappeared them, rather than made them disappear. Of course, in these circumstances, both the formal expressions "was made to disappear" or "was caused to disappear", and the informal transitive usage, are euphemisms: these people have presumably been tortured and murdered.

Similar considerations apply in Spanish: instead of (el/ella) desaparecio (he/she disappeared), one may say (ellos) lo/la desaparecieron (they disappeared him).

Both the English noun phrase the disappeared, and the Spanish los desaparecidos, are often understood nowadays to refer to victims of state terror.

The term desaparecidos and associated verb and English expressions originally referred to South America.

Metaphorical use

The idea of forced disappearance has created the new usage described above. The use of disappeared in this sense is now sometimes extended to political or social commentary not involving crimes against the person. Upper mid-level government officials who lose their positions due to unpopularity with the public or their superiors are metaphorically said to have been disappeared , meaning that official sources no longer refer to them, and ignore their previous existences. Embarrassing documents which are claimed to have been lost in transit, or are otherwise unavailable, are also said to have been "disappeared".


NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch record in their annual report the number of known cases of forced disappearance.


During the Algerian Civil War, which began in 1992 as Islamist guerrillas attacked the military government which had annulled an Islamist electoral victory, thousands of people were forcibly disappeared. Disappearances continued up to the late 1990s, but thereafter dropped off sharply with the decline in violence from c:a 1997. Some of the disappeared were kidnapped or killed by the guerrillas, but others are presumed to have been taken by state security services. This latter group has become the most controversial. Their exact numbers remain disputed, but the government has acknowledged a figure of just over 6,000 disappeared, now presumed dead. Opposition sources claim the real number is closer to 17,000. . In 2005, a controversial amnesty law was approved in a referendum, which, among other things, granted financial compensation to families of disappeared, but also effectively ended the police investigations into the crimes.

Argentina's Dirty War and Operation Condor

During Argentina's "Dirty War" and Operation Condor, political dissidents were heavily drugged and then thrown alive out of airplanes far out over the Atlantic Ocean, leaving no trace of their passing. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny that they had been killed. People murdered in this way (and in others) are today referred to as "the disappeared" (los desaparecidos), and this is where the modern usage of the term derives. An activist group called "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo", formed by mothers of those victims of the dictatorship, were the inspiration for a song by Irish rock band U2, Mothers of the Disappeared (see also the Valech Report for Chile). Ruben Blades also composed a song called "Desaperecidos", in honor of those political dissidents. Mathematician Boris Weisfeiler is thought to have disappeared near Colonia Dignidad, a German colony founded by anti-Communist Paul Schafer in Chile, which was used as a detention center by the DINA, the secret police.

The phrase was infamously recognized by Argentinian de facto President, General Videla, who said in a press conference during the military government which he commanded in Argentina: "They are neither dead nor alive, they disappeared". It is thought that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, up to 30,000 people were subjected to forced disappearance.

Chechnya (Russia)

Russian rights groups estimate there have been about 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya since 1999. Most of them are believed to be buried in several dozen mass graves.

The Russian government failed to pursue any accountability process for human rights abuses committed during the course of the conflict in Chechnya. Unable to secure justice domestically, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In March 2005 the court issued the first rulings on Chechnya, finding the Russian government guilty of violating the right to life and the prohibition of torture with respect to civilians who had died or forcibly disappeared at the hands of Russia's federal troops.


In Colombia the AUC (a right wing illegal military group) with support of the military and the police have forcedly disappeared people mostly because their political views. The government has calculated that more than 7300 people have disappeared but Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) such as ASFADES say that the real number exceeds 15000. Most of the forcedly disappeared people have not been found, but those who have been have been found dead. Most of them have torture traces.


During World War II, Nazi Germany set up secret police forces, including branches of the Gestapo in occupied countries, which they used to hunt down known or suspected dissidents or partisans. This tactic was given the name Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), to describe those who disappeared after being arrested by Nazi forces without any warning. The Nazis also applied this policy against political opponents within Germany. Most victims were killed on the spot, or sent to concentration camps, with the full expectation that they would then be killed.


Ensaaf, an NGO dedicated to human rights in Punjab, India and the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) released a report in January 2009, presenting verifiable quantitative findings on mass disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the Indian state of Punjab, contradicting the Indian governments portrayal of the Punjab counterinsurgency as a successful and humane campaign. The report by Ensaaf and HRDAG, Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India, presents empirical findings suggesting that the intensification of counterinsurgency operations in Punjab in the early 1990s was accompanied by a shift in state violence from targeted lethal human rights violations to systematic enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, accompanied by mass illegal cremations.

This report uses quantitative methods to scientifically demonstrate the implausibility that these disappearances and lethal human rights violations are random or minor aberrations as suggested by Indian officials. The strong correlation found between lethal human rights violations and overall lethal violence across time and space supports the conclusion that enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions were part of a specific plan or widespread practice used by security forces during the counterinsurgency.

The Ensaaf/HRDAG report is the most comprehensive, quantitative analysis to date of available data on human rights violations during the Punjab counterinsurgency. The analysis reviewed data from the local English-language newspaper, the Tribune, cremation ground records from the late human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, acknowledged cremations by the Indian National Human Rights Commission, and reported lethal human rights violations provided by the Committee for the Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab and the Peoples Commission on Human Rights Violations in Punjab.


At least tens of thousands of people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein, many of them during Operation Anfal.


Following the Iran student riots in 1999, more than 70 students disappeared. In addition to an estimated 1,2001,400 detained, the "whereabouts and condition" of five students named by Human Rights Watch remained unknown. The United Nations has also reported other disappearances. After each manifestation, from teacher unions to women's rights activists, at least some disappearances are expected. Dissident writers have been the target of disappearances.


There are many well-documented cases about people kidnapped and murdered by Morocco's Government. Since Morocco reinstated Western Sahara in 1975, somewhere around 1,500 suspected Polisario-sympathizers and other independence activists have been abducted. In several cases, whole families were taken in retaliation for Sahrawis joining the Polisario forces in Tindouf, Algeria. The disappeared were subjected to severe torture, and held in secret detention camps such as Tazmamart and Carcel Negra, where many died due to poor conditions or lack of medical treatment. In the early 90s, hundreds of Sahrawis were released, and others proclaimed dead after the signing of a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario, but approximately 500 remain unaccounted for. Many of the released prisoners have since been re-arrested for protesting their detention.

In February 2007, Morocco signed an international convention protecting people from forced disappearance,

but the Moroccoan legislation allows the assassination of Sahrawis, and usually lets the killers go free, like in the Hamdi Lembarki case in 2005. The Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon has declared the competence of the Spanish jurisdiction in the Hispano-Sahrawi disappearances, and there have been charges brought against some Moroccan military heads, most of them currently in power .


In Pakistans province, Balochistan, the military has been conducting military operation since the year 2000. Since then hundreds of people have gone missing, according to the reports of human rights organisations and Baloch nationalist parties. According to Dr Jahanzaib Jamaldini, Acting Vice-President of Balochistan National Party (BNP) that "We have a list of more than 3000 thousands people who have been arrested by the intelligence agencies from different parts of Balochistan.The agencies picked up the Baloch youths from different parts of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab and tortured them severely." Aftab Sherpao, the federal interior minister had revealed when talking to media persons in December 2005 in Turbat that nearly 4000 people had been arrested from Balochistan but after a few days, official sources claimed that the federal minister had only referred to those illegal immigrants who had trespassed the Pak-Iran border in 2005. A list of missing Baloch activists and citizens are also quoted in a pamphlet entitled 'Waiting for Truth and Justice' published by Balochistan National Party (BNP).

Northern Ireland's "Troubles"

In "The Troubles" of Northern Ireland, people were disappeared. Well-known cases include Jean McConville, who was abducted and killed by the Provisional IRA in 1972. She had been accused of being an informer, and her body was discovered by accident in 2003. Others included Columba McVeigh, a seventeen-year-old Catholic who was killed by the IRA in 1975, on suspicion of being an informer. Eamonn Molloy (killed by the IRA in 1975 after being accused of being an informer and not found until 1999 in Dundalk), Brian McKinney and John McClory (killed by the IRA in 1978 and not found until 1999) and Danny McIlhone, a 19 year old who was abducted and shot dead in 1981. McIlhone's remains were found buried in the Ballynultagh area of the Wicklow Mountains in November 2008. On 22 December that year he was laid to rest beside his parents in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast. As of December 2008, the remains of other "disappeared" victims are still missing and have not been recovered. Cases of this nature are being investigated by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.

Soviet Union

The damnatio memoriae method of disappearance was practiced in the Soviet Union. When an important political figure was convicted, for instance during the Great Purge, artists would retouch them out of photographs; books, records and histories would be recalled, rewritten or re-enacted; pictures, busts and statues would be taken down; people would be discouraged from talking about them, and the government would never mention them again. They were made to have never existed - unpersoned - in the same way as was used by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Notable examples range from prominent Russian revolutionaries who took part in the Russian Revolution but disagreed with Bolsheviks, to some of the most devoted Stalinists (for instance Nikolai Yezhov) who fell into disfavor.

Disappearance was a special clause in the penal sentence: "without the right to correspondence". In many cases this phrase hid the execution of the convicted, although the sentence may have been for, say, "10 years of labor camps without the right to correspondence". The fate of tens of thousands people only became known after the 1950s De-Stalinization.

Sri Lanka

According to a United Nations 1999 study, Sri Lanka has the second highest number of disappeared people in the world. Since 1980, 12,000 Sri Lankans have gone missing after being detained by security forces. More than 55,000 people have been killed over the issue in the past 27 years. The figures are still lower than the current Sri Lankan government's own estimate of 17,000 people missing), which was made after it came to power with a commitment to correct the human rights issues.

In 2003, the International Red Cross (ICRC) restarted investigations into the disappearance of 11,000 people during Sri Lanka's civil war.

On May 29th, 2009, the Times newspaper in Britain acquired confidential U.N. documents that record nearly 7,000 civilian deaths in the no-fire zone up to the end of April. The toll then surged, the paper quoted unidentified U.N. sources as saying, with an average of 1,000 civilians killed each day until May 19, when the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels. That means the final death toll is more than 20,000, The Times said. "Higher," a U.N. source told the paper. "Keep going." The United Nations has previously said 7,000 civilians were killed in fighting between January and May.

A top Sri Lankan official called the 20,000 figure unfounded. Gordon Weiss, a U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, told CNN that a large number of civilians were killed - though he did not confirm the 20,000 figure.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Sri Lanka of causing untold suffering.


On 12 March 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit, a well-known Thai Muslim activist lawyer in the kingdom's southern region, was kidnapped by Thai police and has since disappeared. Officially listed as a disappeared person, his presumed widow, Mrs. Ankhana Neelapaichit, has been seeking justice for her husband since Somchai first went missing. On 11 March 2009, Mrs. Neelapaichit was part of a special panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to commemorate her husband's disappearance and to keep attention focused on the case and on human rights abuses in Thailand.


Turkish human rights groups accuse the Turkish security forces of being responsible for more the disappearance of more than 1,500 civilians of the Kurdish minority in the 1980s and 1990s, in attempts to root out the [PKK]. Each year Yakar-Der, the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) and the International Committee Against Disappearances (ICAD), organise a series of events in Turkey to mark the "Week of Disappeared People".

In April 2009, state prosecutors in Turkey ordered the excavation of several sites around Turkey believed to hold Kurdish victims of state death squads from the 1980s and 1990s, in response for Turkey's security establishment to come clean about past abuses.

United States

Since 2001, as part of its War on Terror, the United States' Central Intelligence Agency has operated a network of off-shore detention facilities, commonly known as black sites, which are used as part of the system of extraordinary rendition used to hold and interrogate "high-value" foreign combatants captured during the US's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ACLU has stated they consider extraordinary rendition to be an illegal form of forced disappearance and called for the detainees to receive trials and the camps to be closed; the US government argues that since the combatants are captured while participating in active military conflict against the United States and officially designated as "Illegal Combatants" under the Geneva Convention, the detentions are legal under international law. [*]

Disappearances in human rights law

In international human rights law, disappearances at the hands of the state have been codified as enforced or forced disappearances. For example, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court defines enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity, and the practice is specifically addressed by the OAS's Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. There is also some authority indicating that enforced disappearances occurring during armed conflict, such as the Third Reich's Night and Fog program, may constitute war crimes.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006, also states that the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime against humanity. Crucially, it gives victims' families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones. The Convention provides for the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance, as well as the right for the relatives of the disappeared person to know the truth. The Convention contains several provisions concerning prevention, investigation and sanctioning of this crime, as well as the rights of victims and their relatives, and the wrongful removal of children born during their captivity. The Convention further sets forth the obligation of international co-operation, both in the suppression of the practice, and in dealing with humanitarian aspects related to the crime. The Convention establishes a Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which will be charged with important and innovative functions of monitoring and protection at international level. Currently, an international campaign of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances is working towards universal ratification of the Convention.

Disappearances work on two levels: not only do they silence opponents and critics who have disappeared, but they also create uncertainty and fear in the wider community, silencing others who would oppose and criticise. Disappearances entail the violation of many fundamental human rights. For the disappeared person, these include the right to liberty, the right to personal security and humane treatment (including freedom from torture), the right to a fair trial, to legal counsel and to equal protection under the law, and the right of presumption of innocence among others. Their families, who often spend the rest of their lives searching for information on the disappeared, are also victims.

Data on human rights violation and state repression

There is currently a wide variety of databases available which attempt to measure, in a rigorous fashion, exactly what governments do against those within their territorial jurisdiction. The list below was created and maintained by Professor Christian Davenport at the University of Maryland. These efforts vary with regard to the particular form of human rights violation they are concerned with, the source employed for the data collection, as well as the spatial and temporal domain of interest.


Imagining Argentina (2003). Directed by Christopher Hampton.

The Official Story (1985). Directed by Luis Puenzo.

Missing (1986). Directed by Costa-Gavras.

Night of the Pencils (1982). Directed by Hector Olivera.

Disappear (short-film) (2008). Set on the day of a school shooting. Directed by amateur director David Spraker.

In an episode of The X-Filesfrom season nine, John Doggett awakens in a Mexican town with no knowledge of who he is .

Rendition (film)(2007). Directed by Gavin Hood. Dukot (2009). Directed by Joel Lamangan.


Darkness at Noon. Written by Arthur Koestler. V for Vendetta. Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated by David Lloyd. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written by George Orwell. A Tale of Two Cities. Written by Charles Dickens. Catch-22. Written by Joseph Heller. When Darkness Falls. Written by James Grippando (2007). La muerte y la doncella. Written by Ariel Dorfman. Informacion para extranjeros. Written by Griselda Gambaro.

"Graffiti" from the collection Queremos tanto a Glenda. Written by Julio Cortazar.

Popular music

"Desaparecidos" appeared on the album Voice of Americaby Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul.

"Desapariciones" by Ruben Blades (also covered by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Mana).

"Mothers of the Disappeared" appeared on the album The Joshua Tree, by U2.

"They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)" appeared on the album ...Nothing Like the Sunby Sting.

"Desaparecidos, a defunct indie-rock band from Omaha, Nebraska.

The song The Circle (Los Olvidados) by Kris Kristofferson is about the Disappeared Ones

External links

Familylinks.icrc.org Website for people looking for family members missing due to a conflict or natural disaster. International Committee of the Red Cross.

See also

Argentine Dirty War

Black sites

Comision Nacional sobre la Desaparicion de Personas

Command responsibility

Damnatio memoriae

Extraordinary rendition

Ghost detainee


International Day of the Disappeared

Missing person

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an Argentine activist group formed by mothers of desaparecidos

North Korean abductions of Japanese

Nacht und Nebel''

Police encounter

Secret police

Arbitrary arrest and detention

Selective assassination


Unexplained disappearances

List of people who have mysteriously disappeared

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Forced disappearance

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