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“Enforced disappearance in the 21st century: nature, challenges and measures to combat it” - Statement by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe

BRUSSELS (3 February 2018)

Distinguished representatives of the Government of Belgium,
Distinguished experts,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to welcome the members of the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances and to thank the Government of Belgium for its offer to host this session of the Working Group. Usually, the Working Group meets in Geneva and it is great that its work can become more visible by holding sessions in the different regions.

Enforced disappearance is not a topic we hear about every day. That is why I would like to start by explaining for those who are not used to the terminology what is meant by the term enforced disappearance. An enforced disappearance is characterized by the following 3 cumulative criteria:
(1) Deprivation of liberty against the will of the person;
(2) Involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence;
(3) Refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

The primary task of the Working Group, which consists of 5 independent experts who serve in their individual capacity, is to assist families in determining the fate or whereabouts of their family members who are reportedly disappeared. The Working Group requests Governments to carry out investigations and to inform the Working Group of the results.

The Working Group also has a preventive role, by assisting States in overcoming obstacles to the realization of the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances. This is done through country visits and advisory services.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance stems from the horrendous practices of the dictatorships in Latin America in the 70s and 80s. It would be a mistake, however, to consider it a legal tool relevant only in relation to past crimes or only in relation to certain geographically regions.

Enforced disappearance is not an issue of the past. Not only does it remain widespread today, it constantly morphs into new patterns, with new perpetrators and new types of victims.

The fight against terrorism is necessary and important, yet there are instances in different parts of the world where the fight against terrorism is used as a pretext to disappear opponents or to simply circumvent the rule of law. Increasingly, non-state actors, such as paramilitary groups, militias and organized crime, perpetrate enforced disappearances, with or without the connivance or knowledge of the State.

Political opponents and human rights activists have been the traditional targets of enforced disappearance. However, today we see enforced disappearance affecting other groups of people as well, such as migrants. Migrants are easy prey to exploitation, sexual violence, discrimination and abuse. They may suffer human rights violations in their countries of origin, transit or destination, or in all three. Often at the mercy of trafficking networks, they are exposed to torture, violence, kidnapping and extortion. Article 16 of the Convention on Enforced Disappearance prohibits the expulsion, refoulement, surrender or extradition of all persons who could be in danger of enforced disappearances. This highlights the contemporary value of the Convention.

The fight against enforced disappearance should be seen in holistic manner, encompassing prevention as well as the right to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.
As the figures in the latest report of the Working Group show, enforced disappearance is not confined to a specific region and no country can claim not to be affected by this crime in one way or another. It is therefore important that all States ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

To date, only 20 countries in Europe have ratified the Convention, which marked its 10th anniversary in 2016: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

In February 2017, the High Commissioner launched the bold objective to double ratification of the International Convention to Protect All Persons from Enforced Disappearance within five years. The target was set at 114 States parties by 2022, on a baseline of 57 States parties in 2017. His call was echoed by the Ministers of Argentina and France and a Declaration in this sense was signed by 48 States during the Human Rights Council.

Therefore, I would like to mention the 14 countries in Europe that have signed but not yet ratified the Convention: Azerbaijan, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Monaco, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. As UN Human Rights Office, we call on these countries to ratify the Convention to Protect Persons from Enforced Disappearance and join the group of States parties.

The international human rights architecture provides a strong framework for the protection of persons from enforced disappearances. In addition to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances which is starting its session today, the General Assembly created the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The two bodies are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and coordinate their work closely.  

The UN Human Rights Office substantively supports both mechanisms. In addition, we launched the social media campaign "Stand up for the disappeared" on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The High Commissioner for Human Rights attaches the outmost importance of having a contemporary legal instrument to monitor, investigate and prevent enforced disappearances. Yet, despite its clear merits, the Convention had not attracted the number of ratifications that it deserved. With its current membership of only 58 States parties, the Convention is deprived of the broad-based support that it required to meet its objectives and the hopes and expectations of the families who have fought so hard for its adoption.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a unique opportunity to revive its key messages. When a person forcibly disappears, a series of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are infringed upon: freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile, freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information; freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to recognition as a person before the law; the right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation; and the right to life, liberty and personal security…

Whenever and wherever humanity's values are abandoned, we are all at greater risk, and the anniversary is an important reminder, not only of the Universal Declaration's relevance today, but of our common duty to respect and protect human rights in the face of contemporary challenges.