International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances - 30 August


By María Antonia Pulido / GICJ

Enforced disappearances remain “a burning reality” across the world according to Mr. Cissé-Gorou, the Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division [1]. An enforced disappearance is defined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as 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” [2]. This definition therefore extends to include private military companies or militias used or tolerated by States to conduct enforcement activities in areas under their control.

Enforced disappearances have become a global issue as they are not limited to specific regions in the world but happen systematically in different countries as a way to “spread terror within the society” [3], which has affected not only the relatives of the disappeared but also broader communities and entire societies. Therefore, enforced disappearances present a serious violation of multiple human rights as victims are deprived of the right to recognition as a person before the law, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to life and identity and a fair trial, the right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation, and others [4].

Countering the complex, multi-faceted harms caused by enforced disappearances requires strong, coordinated capacity of different actors working together. The first step often requires the State to recognise the importance of the issue, criminalise the acts constituting forcible disappearances, and committing resources to eradicating the practice.

The establishment of the International Day of Enforced Disappearances

According to UN General Assembly resolution 65/209,  States welcomed the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance on 21 December 2010 [5]. The resolution expressed concern by the increase in enforced or involuntary disappearances around the world and the amount of reports concerning “harassment, ill-treatment, and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared” [6]. It later on recognized that acts of enforced disappearances are recognized as crimes against humanity and in order to raise awareness and contribute to ending impunity and promoting human rights for all, the resolution established 30 August each year as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, to be observed beginning in 2011. In 2021, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, reminded Member States that “impunity compounds the suffering and anguish. Under international human rights law, families and societies have a right to know the truth about what happened,” and called on them to fulfil their responsibility, ratify the Convention and ensure implementing their obligation under this instrument [7].

Argentina: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

One of the most prominent cases of widespread enforced disappearances unfolded in Latin America during the 20th Century under the shadow of Plan Condor, a sinister campaign characterised by political repression and state terrorism. This harrowing initiative was executed through a network of right-wing dictatorships that sought to eliminate and abduct individuals perceived as insurgents. Among the nations significantly affected by Plan Condor was Argentina, which endured a particularly traumatic episode during its final military period, spanning from 1976 to 1983. Following the passing of Jorge Rafael Videla, a succession of armed dictators came into power, ushering in a repressive regime marked by intense de facto violence and stringent social control, all justified under the guise of "national reorganisation." This era witnessed the closure of public spaces and the censorship of artistic expression, while the regime propagated terror and anxiety by apprehending individuals deemed as subversive elements. Employing the ominous euphemism of making them "disappear," the regime concealed the brutal realities of torture, execution, and the obliteration of identity records. In response to this dire situation, the mothers of the abducted detainees embarked on a formidable quest to locate their loved ones, convening every Thursday at the Plaza de Mayo, situated before the government house. This gathering eventually coalesced into the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, a collective movement characterised by its relentless determination and advocacy to know the truth about the 30,000f people detained that disappeared during that period. Remarkably, it was women, traditionally confined to domestic roles and the private sphere, who emerged as the driving force, rallying on the streets to demand justice for the inexplicable disappearance of their family members.


Enforced Disappearances in Iraq: A recent country review by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances

In Iraq, the practice of enforced disappearance has been widespread throughout the country over different periods, in such a way that impunity and revictimization prevail as the default in Iraq today. According to official figures, it is estimated that somewhere between 250,000 and 1,000,000 individuals have disappeared due to conflict and political violence [8]. From 2003 and after the USA-led occupation ofn the country, the USA and its allies captured at least 200,000 Iraqis, around half of whom were arrested without a warrant for their involvement in insurgency operations.

Waves of disappearances unfortunately continue to occur. Between 2014 to 2017 the country experienced killings, abductions, and arbitrary detentions carried out by both ISIS and members of the Iraqi army and security forces including militias. Some of the gravest examples occurred during this time, particularly, over a few days in June 2016, 643 men and boys were forcibly disappeared by the militia, termed “Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)” by Iraq, in the context of military operations to retake Fallujah from ISIS control.” [9] All available evidence analysed by GICJ, indicates that those taken were not members of a terrorist group, did not provide support for terrorism and were taken on a sectarian basis which in some cases removed all men from an extended family irrespective of their age. [10]

Accordingly, in Iraq today, thousands of families are seeking justice for abductions, detentions, torture, and disappearances committed by government-linked militias. However, the authorities have failed to take concrete action to investigate disappearances. The committees that were purportedly set up to investigate particular atrocities moved at a glacial pace, and did not make any findings public. Everything in their power was done to prevent attempts at seeking accountability for violations and justice for the families. More systematically,  enforced disappearance is currently not a crime under Iraqi law and therefore cannot be prosecuted as a distinct offence [11].


CED’s country review of Iraq 2023

As a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearance, Iraq has an obligation to criminalise enforced disappearances, investigate, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure reparation for victims. However, along with other previous recommendation it has failed to properly implement measures requested by international bodies such as ensuring criminalisation of this heinous crime.


In this context, Iraq’s the Committee conducted a visit to Iraq in November 2022 and published a full report with 85 concrete recommendations on the 4th of April 2023. The report highlights ongoing patterns of enforced disappearance, and calls on the state to urgently implement a number of recommendations submitted by the Committee.

In light of this, Geneva International Centre for Justice organised, on the 5th of April 2023, an online dialogue session with United Nations’ Committee on Enforced Disappearances represented by Ms. Barbara Lochbihler, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee and Rapporteur for Iraq, Ms. Alban Prophette-Pallasco, Executive Secretary of the Committee, and more than fifty members or Iraqi civil society, among them academics, lawyers and representatives of the victims as well as a number of media professionals and representatives of TV satellite channels.

In advance of the country visit, GICJ held training sessions for local civil society organisations in Iraq in May and October 2022. The aim of these sessions was to build the capacity of organisations representing victims of differences to enable them to communicate about instances of disappearances to international bodies, including the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and support their efforts to achieve accountability for the extensive violations that have been recorded. Working collaboratively, GICJ oversaw the production of regional reports on the current human rights situation in different areas of Iraq which facilitated a briefing to the Committee about key areas of concern that they should focus on.

During the country visit itself, GICJ organised a meeting on the 18th of November 2022 between the Committee delegation and representatives of civil society to allow them to convey concerns and individual cases directly to the international experts.

In renewed recommendations in the full report, the CED requested Iraq to urgently set up new coordination mechanisms in liaison with all stakeholders as part of its obligations to investigate all reports and address the needs and rights of victims. Further Iraq must take “legislative and judicial measures to ensure that any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of disappearance is officially considered as a victim and entitled to the rights contained in the Convention.” [12].


Role of international organisations in countering enforced disappearances

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into effect on July 1, 2002, along with the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20th December 2006, provide a compelling affirmation of the legal norm. They establish that instances of enforced disappearances, when executed as part of a widespread or systematic attack targeting a civilian population, hold the classification of crimes against humanity. Significantly, these crimes are not bound by any statute of limitations, ensuring that justice for historic violations remains a possibility. Underpinning these legal instruments is the empowerment they extend to the families of victims—empowerment to seek reparations and demand the revelation of truth shrouding the mysterious disappearance of their cherished ones.

Reflecting on the progression of international legal standards, it wasn't until 1992 that the United Nations General Assembly embraced the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This momentous step cast enforced disappearances as profound violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, urging states to forestall, extirpate, and penalise such transgressions within the bounds of criminal law. In the trajectory of international legal evolution, this momentum continued, with the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons (Inter-American Convention) becoming effective in 1996, followed by the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in December 2010. Presently, among the 193 UN Member States, 72 have ratified the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The extent of ratifications is not sufficiently universal, and more ratifications should be encouraged in order to extend protection to the widest possible number of people. The Convention established the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED), comprising independent experts, which plays a vital role in overseeing the adherence to the Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearance by the States parties.

Case of justice, accountability, and prevention: Izabel Lopez Raymundo