A forced disappearance occurs when an organization forces a person to vanish from public view, either by murder or by simple sequestration. The victim is first kidnapped, then illegally detained in concentration camps, often tortured, and finally executed and the corpse hidden. In Spanish and Portuguese, "disappeared people" are called desaparecidos, a term which specifically refers to the mostly South American victims of state terrorism during the 1970s and the 1980s, in particular concerning Operation Condor.
According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force on July 1, 2002, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, "forced disappearances" qualify as a crime against humanity, which thus cannot be subject to statute of limitation.
Typically, a murder will be surreptitious, with the body disposed of in such a way as to never be found. The person simply vanishes. The party committing the murder has deniability, as there is no body to show that the victim is actually dead. Furthermore, the perpetrators of disappearance often go to great lengths to obscure or eliminate all mention of the disappeared, by altering the historical record and encouraging the silence of surviving relatives. In Chile and Argentina, for example, the infamous "death flights" were used during Operation Condor by the military juntas to dispose of the victims' bodies at sea. Since the bodies couldn't be found decades later, those responsible for human right violations claimed that the statute of limitations impeded any trial. However, in Chile, judge Juan Guzman Tapia would create, by jurisprudence, the felony of "permanent sequestration": he argued that since the bodies couldn't be found, the statute of limitations couldn't be applied since the sequestration continued and was still in effect. Juan Guzman thus ensured the possibility of bringing to trial some of the Chilean military men involved, even though the amnesty law of 1978 continues to apply, since the democratic government has not yet abrogated it.
In the case of forced disappearance the word "disappear", which is properly an intransitive verb, becomes transitive. Therefore, victims are referred to as the "disappeared". They have been "disappeared" by whomever, and those responsible are charged with "disappearing" him or her. People who insist on correct usage prefer to say that someone "was made to disappear" or "caused to disappear." These phrases are usually considered euphemisms. The Spanish verb desaparecer, like its English translation disappear, is grammatically intransitive, but it is used in this sense to imply causativity (so desaparecidos are people who were "made to disappear").
Well known incidents
The term desaparecidos specifically refers to South America's "Dirty War", particularly in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, which cooperated together, along with other dictatorships, in Operation Condor. However, the term may be used in other contexts. NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch recense in their annual report the number of forced disappearances cases.
Islamic Republic of Iran
Following the Iran student riots in 1999, more than seventy students disappeared. In addition, to an estimated 1,200-1,400 detained, the "whereabouts and condition" of five students named by Human Rights Watch remained unknown.New Arrests And "Disappearances" Of Iranian Students The United Nations has also reported other disappearances.UN experts urge Iran to observe human rights norms in case of dead journalist Dissident writers have been the target of disappearances.WAN protests disappearances in Iran
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) published a report in January 2006 expressing concern over "widespread instances of 'disappearance' [and] of torture inflicted on people held in custody[.]"Conflict in Balochistan: HRCP Fact Finding Missions In its report, the HRCP stated that among the most disturbing accounts of disappearances was that of eighteen labour leaders of Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) on December 9, 2005, from Karachi. The report recommended that all places of irregular detention be immediately closed down.
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 be killed.
Northern Ireland's "Troubles"
In "The Troubles" of Northern Ireland people were disappeared, the most infamous case being that of mother of ten, Jean McConville, who was abducted, tortured and killed by the Provisional IRA in 1972. She had been accused of being an informer. Her body was discovered by accident in 2003. Another well known case is that of Columba McVeigh, a seventeen year old Catholic who was killed by the IRA in 1975 on suspicion of being an informer. Cases of this nature are being investigated by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.
Operation Condor and Argentina's Dirty War
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 deny 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 use 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. The Mexican rock group Mana covered the song in their album "Mana: Unplugged." Boris Weisfeiler is thought to have disappeared near Colonia Dignidad, a German colony founded by Nazi 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 he commanded in Argentina: "They are not dead neither alive, they disappeared".
Between 1976 and 1983, in Argentina, it is thought that up to 30,000 dissidents (9,000 according to the official report by the CONADEP) and people connected to them, were subject to forced disappearance under the military junta that was in power. From bits and pieces of information collected from military officers involved in the so-called "Dirty War", many victims were sedated and dumped from airplanes into the Rio de la Plata (today these are called vuelos de la muerte, death flights). Other people were held in torture and detention centres; the most notorious one was the Navy's Mechanics Training School (ESMA) in the Nunez district of Buenos Aires.
Many women gave birth in captivity, and their children were given illegally in adoption to families of military or police personnel, or their friends, while their mothers were killed soon after. The task of locating these children and restoring their lost identity has been going on ever since the restoration of democracy in 1983, and has been key in unveiling the atrocities committed by some people otherwise protected by the laws that mandated an end to the trials of former military government officials, or by the pardon granted by President Carlos Menem in 1999, since appropriating children from their mothers is a crime that lies outside the scope of military procedures, and thus also outside any kind of amnesty law or pardon that implies orders in a military context.
American novelist Nathan Englander's 2007 novel "The Ministry of Special Cases" tells the story of an Argentine family whose son is among the disappeared.
The damnatio memoriae method of disappearance was practiced in the Soviet Union. When an important political figure was convicted, e.g., during the Great Purge, artists would retouch them out of photographs; books, records, and histories would be recalled, rewritten, or redacted; pictures, busts, and statues would be taken down; people would be discouraged from talking about them; and the government would never mention them again. It was as if the disappeared had never existed, in a manner similar to that employed by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 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 (e.g., Nikolai Yezhov) who fell into disfavor.
The real disappearance was a special clause of conviction, "without the right to correspondence". It turned out that in many this phrase covered the execution of the convicted, while the sentence stated, e.g., "10 years of labor camps without the right to correspondence". In cases of tens of thousands people their actual fate had became known only after the destalinization of 1950s.
United States' War on Terror
Various press reports, including allegations by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dana Priest, accuse the United States of disappearing over one-hundred suspected terrorists to black sites throughout Eastern Europe or to foreign countries known to torture suspects for information as part of the United States' War on Terrorism. The practice, sometimes known as extraordinary rendition, has been subject to intense scrutiny by the world press and some European governments.
In September 2006 the Bush administration announced it had moved fourteen secretly held "detainees" from CIA Black site at undisclosed locations to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. However, no data were provided as to how many were detained overall, and how many remained. On June 7, 2007 Reuters ran a story entitled "Groups list 39 'disappeared' in U.S. war on terror." The report cited information obtained by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch after they filed a U.S. federal lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information about the 39 "ghost prisoners" held by the U.S. in that government's "war on terror."
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 of 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. (The war claimed a total toll of 150-200,000 deaths). In 2005, a controversial amnesty law was approved in a referendum, among other things granting financial compensation to families of disappeared, but also effectively ended the police investigations into the crimes.
In February 2007 Morocco has signed an international convention protecting people from forced disappearance.
In 2004, EOHR reported that it had been following fifty-nine cases of disappearance within the country since 1992. Domestic human rights organizations provided names to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances; the government did not respond to the EOHR report.
(also known as Reda Mohammed Helal) The deputy editor of Al Ahram newspaper (at the time he disappeared on Monday 11th August 2003), and a founding member of CPS Cairo Peace Society (CPS), a Copenhagen Declaration support group; Reda Helal was disappeared on his way back from the newspaper's office to his home in Kasr El Aini hospital street in downtown Cairo. This street is one of the most secure streets in the Egyptian capital, as it is the location of the headquarters of the Arab League, Egyptian Foreign Ministry,American Embassy, and the Egyptian Museum.
Helal's family presented a complaint about his kidnapping on Monday 11th August 2003 to Sayyeda Zeinab police station. Human rights groups and activists and a number of journalists pointed the incident to the government.
Disappearances in human rights law
In international human rights law, disappearances at the hand 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.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 20 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.
Disappearances work on two levels: not only do they effectively silence those opposition members who have disappeared, they also sow uncertainty and fear in the wider community in general, thus silencing other opposition voices, current and potential alike. Disappearances entail the violation of a series of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. 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, the right of presumption of innocence, et cetera. The families, who often spend the rest of their lives in searches for remains of the disappeared, also become victims of the disappearance's effects.
The idea of forced disappearance, along with the transitive use of verb "disappeared", have entered the popular lexicon of the United States, and are now routinely extended to political or social commentary. Upper mid-level government officials who are unpopular, or who have spoken publicly against their superiors are frequently metaphorically disappeared (e.g., former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown or former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill), meaning that official sources cease to refer to them and seem to ignore their previous existence. Embarrassing documents that are supposedly lost in transit or otherwise unavailable are also said to have been "disappeared."
- Imagining Argentina (2003). Directed by Christopher Hampton.
- The Official Story (1985). Directed by Luis Puenzo.
- Missing (1982). Directed by Costa-Gavras.
- 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.
- Desaparecidos appeared on the album Voice of America by Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul.
- "They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)" appeared on the album ...Nothing Like the Sun by Sting.
- "Mothers of the Disappeared" appeared on the album The Joshua Tree, by U2.
- Desaparecidos.org (in English & Spanish)
- "The Commissar Vanishes" — Nikolai Yezhov airbrushed out of a picture with Stalin;
- The International Commission on Missing Persons
- Kausfiles, February 14, 2004 (includes example of metaphorical usage of the term in U.S. political discourse)
- The Vanished Gallery
- University of Ulster's CAIN website page on The Disappeared
- Groups list 39 "disappeared" in U.S. war on terror
- 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
- Secret police
- Selective assassination
Other pages about History of Chile
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