Enforced disappearances

Enforced disappearances persist in many countries all over the world, having been a continuing feature of the second half of the twentieth century since they were committed on a gross scale in Nazi-occupied Europe.

An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.

Very often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown. Their families and friends may never find out what has happened to them.

But the person has not just vanished.  Someone, somewhere, knows what has happened to them.  Someone is responsible.  Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law but all too often the perpetrators are never bought to justice.

Every enforced disappearance violates a range of human rights including:

  • the right to security and dignity of person
  • the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • the right to humane conditions of detention
  • the right to a legal personality
  • right to a fair trial
  • right to a family life
  • when the disappeared person is killed, the right to life.

Enforced disappearance is a particularly cruel human rights violation; a violation of the person who has disappeared and a violation of those who love them.

The disappeared person is often tortured and in constant fear for their life, removed from the protection of the law, deprived of all their rights and at the mercy of their captors. It is a continuing violation which persists often for many years after the initial abduction.

If the person does not die and is eventually released, they may continue to suffer for the rest of their life from the physical and psychological consequences of this form of dehumanization and from the brutality and torture which often accompany it.

Their family and friends, not knowing the fate of their loved one, wait, sometimes for years, for news that may never come. They do not know if their loved one will ever return, so they cannot mourn and adjust to the loss. Their anguish is often exacerbated by material deprivation if the missing person is the mainstay of the family's finances. Sometimes they cannot obtain pensions or other means of support if there is no death certificate.

What Amnesty International is doing

Amnesty International condemns all enforced disappearances as crimes under international law.

In recent years, in the course of the "war on terror", the USA, sometimes with the complicity of other governments, has acrried out enforced disappearances of terror suspects.  Amnesty International has campaigned to demand that the USA and all states reveal the whereabouts and fate of disappeared persons, and if they are not to be released that they are charged with a recognizably criminal offence and given a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

We also seek to bring to justice those who commit enforced disappearances.

Every year Amnesty International also joins activists around the world to observe 30 August as the International Day of the Disappeared, to remember those who have disappeared and their relatives.

Case study

On 14 January 1990, 43 people were abducted in Colombia from the Pueblo Bello community in Antioquia department by 60 army-backed paramilitaries.

This was allegedly in retaliation for the theft of some cattle belonging to a paramilitary commander. The 43 were taken to a farm where they were most probably killed.

On the road to the farm, the paramilitaries were not challenged at a military checkpoint, despite reports that screams could be heard coming from the trucks.

Following exhumations, six bodies were identified as victims of the Pueblo Bello abductions. The fate of the other 37 victims remains unknown.

Some paramilitaries have been given prison sentences for killing the six people identified. However, the perpetrators responsible for the enforced disappearance of the other victims have gone unpunished.

Campaigning work

In December 2006, the UN adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The convention aims to prevent enforced disappearances taking place, uncover the truth when they do occur, punish the perpetrators and provide reparations to the victims and their families.

This is considered to be one of strongest human rights treaties ever adopted by the UN. Some of its provisions appear for the first time and introduce important new standards.

Amnesty International is joining other members of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances to call on all states to ratify the convention. For the convention to be effective, governments must introduce legislation to implement it.

Read the full text of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

How you can help