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The legal term may be clunky - “enforced disappearance” - but the human story is simple: People literally disappear, from their loved ones and their community, when state officials (or someone acting with state consent) grab them from the street or from their homes and then deny it, or refuse to say where they are. It is a crime under international law.

Often people are never released and their fate remains unknown. Victims are frequently tortured and in constant fear of being killed. They know their families have no idea where they are and the chances are no one is coming to help. Even if they escape death and are eventually released, the physical and psychological scars stay with them.

In the last decade, we have had some success. In 2010 we cheered the arrival of an international Disappearances Convention, and every year hundreds of thousands of Amnesty supporters send personal letters to families, or appeals to governments.

“Every time I come home and see all the cards and letters it reminds me that people are working on this. [It] gives me strength to keep going.’ Sandya Eknaligoda, whose husband Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for nearly five years.

Sandya Eknaligoda wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda with with their two sons Sathyajith Sanjaya and Harith Danajaya, Sri Lanka, 10 January 2011. © Private

The problem

Enforced disappearance is frequently used as a strategy to spread terror within society. The feeling of insecurity and fear it generates is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects communities and society as a whole.

It has become a global problem. Once largely used by military dictatorships, disappearances now happen in many internal conflicts, particularly when trying to repress political opponents.

Human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and lawyers seem to be particular targets, but vulnerable people are also at risk, such as children and people with disabilities.

Every disappearance violates a range of human rights including:

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

What Amnesty is calling for

If governments genuinely don’t know where people are being held, they need to make more effort to find out. If they do, they must release them, or provide details of where they died.

Governments must:

• Investigate and prosecute those responsible in a fair trial.
• Legislate to make the International Convention national law.
• Implement the International Convention and accept the competency of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.
• Live up to their obligations under international law.
• Make sure survivors and people who have lost their loved ones receive reparation – this includes compensation, rehabilitation, restitution and a guarantee that it won’t happen again.

The issue in detail

Life in limbo

Family and friends of people who have disappeared experience slow mental anguish. Not knowing whether their son or daughter, mother or father is still alive. Not knowing where he or she is being held, or how they are being treated. Searching for the truth may put the whole family in great danger.

It is women who most often lead the struggle to find out what happened in the minutes, days and years since the disappearance – putting themselves at risk of intimidation, persecution and violence.

On top of this, when a key family member disappears, financial security can disintegrate. The disappeared person is often the family’s main breadwinner, the only one able to cultivate the crops or run the family business. This is then made even worse by some national laws that don’t let you draw a pension or receive other support without a death certificate.

Not knowing if their loved one will ever return, those left behind live in limbo.

Disappearances Convention

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into effect in 2010. It aims to prevent enforced disappearances, uncover the truth when they do happen, and make sure survivors and victims’ families receive justice and reparation.

The Convention is one of strongest human rights treaties ever adopted by the UN.

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Key Facts


94 states have signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and 44 have ratified it.


In Mexico, more than 26,000 people were reported missing or disappeared between 2006 and 2012.


In Sri Lanka, 12,000 complaints of enforced disappearances have been submitted to the UN since the 1980s. The actual number is at least 30,000 higher.