Enforced disappearances: Urgent to tackle victims’ rights

States should recognise the connection between enforced disappearance and economic, social and cultural rights to better prevent enforced disappearances in a holistic way, UN rights experts said.

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Family members of Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat

To mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances issued the following statement:

Enforced disappearance, by its nature, is a complex crime that violates all ranges of rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, of the disappeared, their relatives, and others.

The lack of effective protection of economic, social and cultural rights is also a contributing factor to enforced disappearances. People living in poverty are more vulnerable and exposed to higher risk of enforced disappearances. In some instances, when encountering the criminal justice system, they are deprived of legal advice and assistance to challenge the conditions of their arrest, trial, conviction and detention, and thus disappear within the system.

Victims of enforced disappearances are also mostly marginalised. When they live in areas with little or no state institutions present, their family and relatives have little access to justice and effective means to search for them.

Children who lack access to education, live in poverty or in a street situation or have been displaced, face greater risk of being abducted to be turned into child soldiers or trafficked for exploitation. Migrants and persons with disability are also particularly vulnerable to enforced disappearances, due to a lack of financial resources, protection schemes, as well as political, social and cultural participation.

We have also observed throughout our work that enforced disappearance is used as a tool of intimidation, reprisal and unlawful punishment against human rights defenders, including individuals who promote economic, social and cultural rights.

We urge states to address the fact that enforced disappearances put family and relatives in a very challenging position, especially when the breadwinner is disappeared. As the family structure is disrupted, spouses and children are affected economically, socially and psychologically.

Taking into account that men are usually the main target of enforced disappearances, women are particularly affected. They are often ostracised in the community because their partners are allegedly suspected of crimes, or because people fear associating with someone who has been the target of an enforced disappearance. Mothers may also be socially stigmatised and blamed for not taking “proper care” of their disappeared children.

In some countries, national legislation may make it impossible to draw a pension or receive other means of support in the absence of a death certificate, revictimising the victims and aggravating their vulnerability. Both the economic hardships and the devastation of losing a loved one may cause relatives of the disappeared great emotional trauma that can lead not only to the violation of the right to family life but also to negative physical and psychological impacts.

It is essential that all states pay specific attention to the multidimensional impact of enforced disappearances on the economic, social and cultural rights of the victims throughout the search process and the investigation. Moreover, states should further examine the profile and activities of those who are victims of enforced disappearances to better respond to the collective dimension of the harm suffered by the victims and their communities.

In cases involving disappeared persons who are members of indigenous peoples or other ethnic or cultural groups, there is a need to consider and respect specific cultural patterns when dealing with the disappearance or death of a member of the community. When the body or remains of a disappeared are found and identified, they should be handed over to the family or relatives in accordance with the cultural norms and customs of the victims and their communities.

The Covid pandemic has clearly had a devastating impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in all parts of the world, and has exacerbated the impact on victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives. In this respect, we recall the eight key guidelines that we jointly adopted in September 2020, calling on member states to ensure the respect, promotion and protection of the rights and obligations enshrined in the Convention and Declaration.

We strongly reaffirm our support and solidarity to all victims of enforced disappearance and call on all states to take all measures that are necessary to avoid the additional suffering caused by the social, economic and cultural consequences of enforced disappearance.

In December 2020, we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. We again call upon all states to ratify the convention and accept the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and examine individual and inter-State complaints. – UN Human Rights

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