When human rights defenders are silenced, who will stand up for the rights of all?
“It is painful to live not knowing where your loved one is. Every day I think that he will come back, or that someone will tell me that he has been found. I am always pained when my children ask where their father is. I don’t have an answer for them.”
In a moving account, Sheffra, the wife of Zimbabwean journalist Itai Dzamara, told of her painful search to find out what happened to her husband, who was last seen in 2015. Itai is just one of many people who have been forcibly disappeared, just for doing his job.
On International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances (August 30), and as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders turns 20, we pay special tribute to those brave people who have been forcibly disappeared as they stood up for human rights and those who continue to fight against enforced disappearances despite the constant threats, harassment, and lack of response from the authorities.
Enforced disappearance is one of the worst human rights violations. It has a devastating impact on the victim, their family and friends and society in general. Relatives and friends of people who have been forcibly disappeared feel deep anguish decades after they last had news of their loved ones. The uncertainty about not knowing what happened, wondering whether they are still alive or perhaps still suffering in some hidden, horrible place, makes enforced disappearance an ongoing agony.
It has long been a tactic of repressive governments seeking to silence dissenting and critical voices. Enforced disappearance does not just affect one individual: it spreads fear like wildfire as a product of its secrecy and impunity, sending a chilling message to many others. No one can feel safe, because no one knows what happened and who might be next.
For Amnesty’s recent report “Deadly but preventable attacks”, we talked to relatives, friends and colleagues of human rights defenders who have been killed or forcibly disappeared simply because of the work they do. These attacks send a ripple effect expanding outwards to loved ones, other human rights defenders and entire communities, with fear and despair seeping into their everyday life. This is further exacerbated when there is no accountability, sending a message that these are tolerated by the authorities, increasing the risk these abuses might happen again. Enforced disappearances are an atrocious tactic used to intimidate and inhibit human rights defenders. And when human rights defenders are silenced, who will stand up for the rights of all?
Over the past year we have seen minor progress. In Thailand, authorities finally announced they would open a special investigation into the case of Pholachi Rakchongcharoen, known as “Billy”, an ethnic Karen activist who was forcibly disappeared while in custody in 2014. Thai authorities also pledged to progress with a long-delayed bill criminalising enforced disappearances in 2018. In Pakistan, Samar Abbas, an activist who was forcibly disappeared in January 2017, was finally released in March 2018. However, no one has been brought to justice for this crime, with enforced disappearances continuing and the space for critical voices becoming smaller.
In other cases, there has been no progress at all. There has been no news since 2013 of Syrian human rights defenders Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadeh, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi, known as the Douma 4. Dong Samuel Luak, a South Sudanese human rights lawyer, and Aggrey Idri, a vocal government critic, were abducted in Nairobi in January 2017 and last seen in detention in Juba. So far, neither Kenyan nor South Sudanese authorities have admitted responsibility for their enforced disappearance and their families have not received any official information about their fate or whereabouts.
More than two decades after the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia ended, 12,000 people remain missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The fate of the missing remains unresolved and their relatives are still bravely demanding truth, justice and reparation.
Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights defender from the United Arab Emirates, has been held in detention since 2017 in an unconfirmed location, with almost zero contact with the outside world, his family and his lawyer. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May this year, and continues to be held in conditions that amount to enforced disappearance.
In other cases, those seeking truth, justice and reparations for people who have been disappeared have themselves been targeted. In Sri Lanka, Sandhya Eknaligoda, a campaigner against enforced disappearances and the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, was recently the subject of a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media. Last year, students in Bangladesh peacefully protesting at the lack of truth and justice for Kalpana Chakma, an Indigenous human rights defender who was forcibly disappeared in 1996, were attacked by the security forces.
Truth, justice and reparation
Calling for truth, justice and reparations for victims of enforced disappearance takes time, courage and dedication. Friends and families are often forced to lead the efforts to find their loved ones and, in the process, become human rights defenders themselves. They need our support and solidarity.
As we commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances and remember those who have been forcibly disappeared, we must also embrace the struggles of those brave human rights defenders who continue fighting to put an end to this atrocious crime and unite with them in their call for truth, justice and reparation.