The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12 September – 7 October 2022
Agenda Item 3 – Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development
Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
20th September 2022
By Emily Bare / GICJ
Enforced disappearance is considered to be 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, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law."
On the 20th of September 2022, under Agenda Item 3 of the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council, the Chair Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID), Mr. Luciano Hazan, presented the UNWGEID's report. In his opening statement, he recognised that this year is the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. He noted that despite commitments and promises made by states to improve the issue, enforced disappearances continue and there are new trends that cause new challenges. He also highlighted the UNWGEID's country visit to Cyprus from the 5th to the 12th of April 2022, holding it as a country of concern.
The report of the UNWGEID focused on the activities of the communications and cases examined by the UNWGEID from the 22nd of May 2021 to the 13th of May 2022. The report highlighted the transmission of new cases and urgent appeals of enforced disappearance to states. Further, it voiced the UNWGEID's continued concern regarding the lack of engagement and cooperation from several countries and observed that it has become increasingly difficult for it to receive positive replies to its requests for country visits.
GICJ welcomes the UNWGEID's recent report on enforced disappearances and condemns the systemic nature of this crime. GICJ participated in the interactive dialogue and delivered two joint oral statements during the interactive dialogue about enforced disappearances in Iraq. We stress the need for increased pressure to be placed upon governments to fulfil their obligations and develop and implement a comprehensive policy to address past abuses, including enforced disappearances. We urge the UN and international community to take concrete measures to prevent these human rights violations.
The practice of enforced disappearances has been a worldwide area of concern for many years. The General Assembly first referred to the issue of "Disappeared Persons" in resolution 33/173, where it expressed that it is "deeply concerned by reports from various parts of the world relating to enforced or involuntary disappearance."
In 1979, the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities proposed the creation of a Working Group consisting of experts to examine questions related to enforced or involuntary disappearances. Therefore, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) was established in February 1980 by resolution 20 (XXXVI), and was the first United Nations human rights thematic mechanism to be established with a universal mandate.
The mandate of the UNWGEID is to assist families of disappeared persons to ascertain the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared relatives, to monitor States’ compliance with their obligations deriving from the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and to provide States with assistance in the implementation of those norms.
The UNWGEID is composed of five independent experts of balanced geographical representation. Together, they investigate individual cases and produce reports and opinions to fulfil its mandate.
The most recent resolution renewing the mandate of the UNWGEID, A/HRC/RES/45/3, was adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2020, and allows the mechanism to continue releasing reports on its findings and conducting investigations.
Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
Based on its continued mandate, the UNWGEID submitted its most recent report on the 12th of August 2022 (A/HRC/51/31). The report reflects the activities of the communications and cases examined by the UNWGEID from the 22nd of May 2021 to the 13th of May 2022.
During the reporting period, the members of the UNWGEID carried out several activities connected to enforced disappearances. These activities included participation in conferences, consultations, seminars, training events, workshops, and lectures organised by governments and civil society organisations. The UNWGEID also transmitted 375 new cases of enforced disappearances to 26 states and 19 urgent appeals concerning persons who had been arrested, detained, abducted, or otherwise deprived of liberty or had been forcibly disappeared in 16 states.
Furthermore, the UNWGEID carried out a visit to Cyprus from the 5th to the 12th of April 2022 and another visit to Uruguay from the 7th to the 14th of July 2022. The UNWGEID voiced its appreciation for these visits and attached two addendum items to the report with concluding observations of the visits.
The UNWGEID also noted its continued concern regarding the lack of engagement and cooperation from several countries and observed that it has become increasingly difficult for it to receive positive replies to its requests for country visits. It highlighted its regret that it has not been possible to carry out a country visit to many countries that have not responded to its request to visit. Thus, it urged all states that have received a request for a visit to respond favourably to the request, in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 21/4.
It then furthered its call for submissions on the use of new technologies and its effects on enforced disappearances. The report noted that repressive governments and other actors, such as criminal networks, armed groups, and other non-state actors, can use new technologies against human rights defenders and activists to curb their fundamental rights. These violations may take the form of surveillance, monitoring, intrusion, disinformation campaigns, and online harassment and cyberattacks. It urged civil society organisations and interested parties to admit submissions on the issue to further the UNWGEID's investigations into the matter.
The report then identified specific observations in relation to situations that are of particular concern in the following countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Democratic Republic of Korea, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, and Yemen.
Referring to the ongoing situation of enforced disappearances in many areas of the world, the UNWGEID then called on Article 7 of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states that "no circumstances whatsoever, whether a threat of war, a state of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked to justify enforced disappearances." It also called upon Articles 13 and 14 which protect those working on enforced disappearances and searching for disappeared individuals.
The UNWGEID then concluded the report by stating that for the countries not mentioned, too often, the families of disappeared persons and organisations supporting them have not been able to lodge complaints or have access to proper remedies, including effective search activities and independent investigations.
Interactive Dialogue on the Working Group's Report
The Chair Rapporteur of the UNWGEID, Mr. Luciano Hazan started his remarks by welcoming the inputs from member states and other organisations and persons. He recognised that this year is the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. In acknowledgement of this milestone, he stated that the UNWGEID started a special initiative during the reporting period which aims to keep stock of the progress of international law regarding enforced disappearances and to define the obstacles that stand in the way of the implementation of the Declaration. Further, the initiative addresses ways in which the UNWGEID could help states overcome these obstacles.
Mr. Hazan highlighted that the UNWGEID has worked tirelessly over the past 30 years to help thousands of families of individuals that were forcibly disappeared. However, despite governmental commitments and pledges to ameliorate the situation, enforced disappearances persist, and emerging patterns pose new issues.
He continued by providing more information from the UNWGEID's report, commenting on the transmission of 375 new cases to 26 states. However, he qualified this information by stating that the data in the report does not provide a full and accurate picture of the scale of enforced disappearances around the world, but rather a tiny fraction. He discussed the fact that reprisals against family members looking for their loved ones remain common and contribute to many instances of enforced disappearances going unreported.
Mr. Hazan underlined that the practice of enforced disappearances has been changing, and new modalities call for new responses and approaches from the UNWGEID and the international community. To further investigate this idea, the UNWGEID conducted a new study on the interplay between technology and enforced disappearances. This study recognises that new technology can have both a negative and positive impact on human rights. New technology can be used against human rights defenders, but it can also be used to document human rights violations. He mentioned how more information on this study will be released later and urged the international community to be part of the communications.
Turning to another aspect of the report, Mr. Hazan discussed how the UNWGEID was able to visit several countries during the reporting period. He highlighted the country visit to Cyprus from the 5th to the 12th of April 2022, holding it as a country of concern.
He thanked the government of Cyprus for its invitation and the openness and cooperation it provided. He highlighted how the division in Cyprus has an impact on the promotion and protection of human rights in the country, including the right to truth, justice, reparation, and memorialisation.
Mr. Hazan acknowledged the progress made in Cyprus but noted that progress has slowed down in recent years, with challenges remaining. He stressed the need for urgent measures to be taken to accelerate the identification and return of victims' remains, especially because of how much time has passed since the time of abduction and the current age of relatives and witnesses.
He stated that it is essential to dispel the lack of trust in the country to put an end to the anguish of families.
Mr. Hazan also stated that the UNWGEID is scheduled to visit Uruguay in the coming months of 2022. He thanked the country for its invitation and held that the UNWGEID will prepare a report comprising its findings.
Mr. Hazan concluded his opening remarks by noting that great paths are left to cover in terms of addressed enforced disappearances. He stated that we need to continue working until we finally put an end to this scourge. He called on the international community to unite and step up its efforts to put an end to this horrible crime.
The floor was then given to Cyprus, the country of concern, for follow-up remarks. The delegate of Cyprus started by thanking the members of the UNWGEID for its visit to Cyprus and its comprehensive report thereof. She held that the fate of the disappeared remains an "open wound" in Cyprus. She attributed the report's concern regarding the slowing down of the Committee on Missing Persons to the passage of time, stating that with every passing year the prospect of discovering remains becomes grimmer. She added that in certain circumstances, remains have been intentionally destroyed or relocated, making their discovery impossible.
She highlighted that to identify remains, investigative mechanisms must have access to the initial burial ground site. It is for this reason that the government of Cyprus has requested all relevant stakeholders to open their archives, not just for the period when these atrocities occurred, but for the time after as well. She noted that these archives may provide information about possible burial sites as well as possible identification information.
She stated that the government of Cyprus has been urging all parties in charge of these sites, including military forces, to open direct access to the sites by the Committee on Missing Persons.
She concluded by reminding the Council that the state's stance has always been that it cannot wait for a political solution while time obscures and obliterates evidence.
The floor was then given to delegations to ask questions of Mr. Hazan and make comments on the report.
The delegate of Lithuania took the floor on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries. He started by thanking the UNWGEID for its report and its addendums. He acknowledged that enforced disappearance continues to be an alarming reality, particularly enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists.
He urged all states to immediately stop and prevent all enforced disappearances, initiate impartial independent investigations, and protect the rights of victims and their families. He also called on countries of concern to cooperate with the UNWGEID to facilitate its important work.
He concluded by asking: what additional measures could this Council take to improve the implementation of the Declaration?
The delegate of the European Union then discussed how enforced disappearances continue to be an active part of life in many parts of the world including Europe. She highlighted how these practices may constitute crimes against humanity. She stated that family members of the disappeared, particularly women, are often faced with economic hardship and an increased risk of sexual violence. She encouraged all states to actively participate with the UNWGEID, by authorising visits and giving due effect to its recommendations.
The delegate of the Organization of American States (OAS) then commended the work of the UNWGEID and its report. She highlighted its findings from 2021, especially the obstacles faced by families of disappeared persons, particularly when lodging complaints or accessing recourse. She urged states to adopt specific measures to prevent acts of intimidation against them. She commented on the need for a comprehensive policy on enforced disappearances aimed at giving effect to the rights to truth, justice, and reparation.
The delegate of Belgium then took the floor, on behalf of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. He noted the importance of the Convention in preventing enforced disappearances and in helping victims and their families. He concurred with the report's concern about countries where the deteriorated security and political climate have enabled the perpetration of enforced disappearances, especially where states try to justify their actions as "anti-terrorism measures." He encouraged all countries to fully implement the recommendations contained in the UNWGEID's report.
He concluded with the following question: Can you please elaborate on how the technical assistance of the UNWGEID can help strengthen the implementation of the Declaration?
The delegate of Argentina, on behalf of Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Panama, and Argentina, then took the floor. He acknowledged the challenges that countries face in combating enforced disappearances and noted their longevity. He concluded by echoing the UNWGEID's call for more states to sign the Convention and to accede to the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.
The delegate of Iraq commented on the UNWGEID's report, repeating its claim that the cases dealt with by the group date back to before 2003. He stated that the country is currently dealing with cases of enforced disappearances and trying to identify victims. Though, he highlighted that this task is very difficult given the amount of time that has passed and the state that the corpses are now in.
The delegate of South Africa then discussed the state's mechanisms and institutions, including the MPTT, to try to address the issue of enforced disappearances. She stated that the MPTT continues to search for, locate, and exhume the remains of missing persons from the apartheid regime. She concluded by stating that her delegation continues to engage in good faith with the human rights mechanisms.
The floor was then given back to the Chair Rapporteur of the UNWGEID, Mr. Hazan, to provide comments and answers to the questions posed by the preceding countries. Mr. Hazan thanked everybody for their cooperation and dialogue. First, he responded to the response from Cyprus and flagged the importance of the bi-communal work done by the Committee in Cyprus. He used this Committee as an example to be replicated by other states who have been through armed conflicts. Next, he commended Iraq on its decision to receive a country visit in October of next year.
Next, Mr. Hazan responded to some criticisms that a few delegations made. He clarified that the UNWGEID sends individual cases which are based on complaints or reports that it receives in accordance with its humanitarian mandate and in good faith. He expressed his concern that instead of cooperating, many states contend that the UNWGEID is biased or partaking in some kind of political agenda against them. He reiterated that the UNWGEID abides by the highest standards of objectivity, independence, and impartiality. Additionally, he responded to comments made by the Russian Federation. He clarified that the information received by the UNWGEID indicates that many of the disappearances in the country were perpetrated by soldiers of the Russian Federation and affiliated armed groups.
The floor was then given back to delegations to ask questions of Mr. Hazan and make comments on the report.
The delegate of Yemen drew attention to the Houthi group, who despite the current humanitarian truce in Yemen, are carrying out raids, arrests, and abduction campaigns against human rights activists, political opponents, youth, and journalists, putting them in prisons and detention centres without any legal justifications. He stated that enforced disappearance has become a daily practice by the Houthi groups. He called for due attention to be given to reporting, monitoring, and documenting these violations as well as increased pressure on the Houthis to release all arbitrarily detained and disappeared individuals.
The floor was then given to civil society organisations to express their concerns regarding the UNWGEID's report. These groups all expressed the same sentiment, that they condemn the systematic nature of enforced disappearances and deprivation of human rights. Almost all organisations acknowledge the activities of state militias in assisting the perpetration of these crimes. One non-governmental organisation noted that enforced disappearances are sometimes used as a weapon by the state to spread disinformation to society at large.
Furthermore, Emily Bare of GICJ delivered a joint oral statement that outlined the systemic nature of enforced disappearance in the state of Iraq. She highlighted the state's use of mass graves and secret prisons to further these atrocities. She condemned the impunity for these perpetrators and urged the Human Rights Council to support the mission of the UNWGEID in investigating these rampant cases in Iraq.
Additionally, Martin Browne of GICJ also delivered a joint oral statement during this interactive dialogue. He lamented the reports of countries failing to fully engage with the UNWGEID when human rights are threatened by disappearance and urged states who are proud of their human rights record to respond to requests for information and permit country visits in the coming year. He also urged states to support technology that documents and shares essential information about persons, detention facilities, and burial sites to facilitate effective investigation.
The Chair Rapporteur of the UNWGEID, Mr. Luciano Hazan, concluded by making final responses to state delegations.
He also highlighted the interest of the UNWGEID in responding to requests by the families of the disappeared regarding the fate of their family members. He noted that an obstacle to addressing enforced disappearances in many countries is the lack of necessary resources to do so. He stated that it is crucial to establish accountability policies to ensure that repetition of this crime does not occur.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
The issues of enforced disappearances are widespread and often systematically ignored by governments. The international community is responsible for holding each other to a higher standard and ensuring that these issues do not go unnoticed, undocumented, or without justice for victims and their families.
GICJ would like to state that the issue of enforced disappearance specifically in Iraq, according to our sources, is between 500,000 and 1,000,000 disappeared persons since 2003. The Iraqi authorities and its militia used the pretext of fighting terrorism to justify the abduction of thousands of innocent civilians for a sectarian agenda. GICJ is concerned that the Working Group's visit to Iraq still has not occurred. We think that a visit is crucial, as the Iraqi authorities continue to avoid implementing the recommendations made in 2016, 2020, and 2022.
Therefore, we call for increased pressure to be placed upon governments to fulfil their obligations. States must develop and implement comprehensive policies to address past abuses, including enforced disappearances, which should encompass the rights of victims to truth, justice, and reparation.
We urge the UN and international community to take concrete measures to prevent these human rights violations. We also strongly advise the Human Rights Council to support the mission of the Working Group in investigating the rampant enforced disappearances situation in Iraq.
In the recorded video attached to this report, you can view the two joint oral statements that were delivered by Emily Bare and Martin Browne of GICJ during the interactive dialogue.
Justice, Enforced Disappearances, Working Group, Human Rights Violation, Human Rights Council, United Nations, Geneva4Justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice