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A Glimpse of Enforced Disappearances in the World and the Role of NGOs

Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso
Ms. Bacalso is the Secretary-General of the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), which is based in Manila, Philippines. She was the former Chairperson of the Families of Victims of the Involuntary Disappearance - Philippines. She initiated in finding representatives of organizations of families of from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in 1997 that eventually resulted in the conceptualization and birth of what is now the AFAD.
“The bloodshed of Gwangju in May,
1980 is the cornerstone of this country's democracy.
Its victims dedicated their lives to democracy.
This government today stands in line
with the Gwangju Democratization Movement.“
- President Kim Young-Sam, May 13, 1993


Enforced disappearance is an anathema to democracy. The approximately 2,000 enforced disappearances that occurred during the May 18 Uprising had certainly caused and continue to cause endless sufferings to the families of the victims and irreparable devastating effects on society. About 10 years ago, from the invitation of the May 18 Memorial Foundation, together with other civil society members, I visited the cemetery of victims of gruesome massacres that were perpetrated during the uprising. At least, for families of those killed, they were able to provide a decent burial.

As the 1st and 2nd of November are just around the corner, people from multicultural backgrounds commemorate All Saints ‘or Souls’ Day (or its equivalent in different religions). But for families of the disappeared, while there is no evidence of death, there are no graves to visit on this day. The adage, “time heals all wounds”, is not applicable to families of the disappeared due to the absence of closure brought about by uncertainty of the whereabouts of the victims.

The demise of democracy caused by the trampling of human rights and dignity during the Gwangju Uprising occurred and continue to occur in many other countries. Enforced disappearance is a global phenomenon that is happening in at least 92 countries, according to the 2018 report of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGIED) to the Human Rights Council.

Ms. Bacalso discusses about enforced disappearance in Asia

Special Lecture on Enforced Disappearances at Chonnam National University

From the 15th to the 20th of October, I had the opportunity to discuss the global scourge of enforced disappearances to a group of graduate students of Chonnam National University in Gwangju City, South Korea. It was an opportune moment to revisit enforced disappearances in selected Asian, Latin American, and African countries.

The class of eight students from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Vietnam started with the viewing of the documentary, entitled, ‘Unsilenced’1. The said documentary depicts the true-to-life disappearance of six paper factory workers portrayed by the families of the victims themselves who courageously filed a case in court. With the confession of Police Sgt. Esequias Duyugan, who witnessed the actual disappearance and eventual execution of the victims, one of the immediate perpetrators, Corporal Rodrigo Biliones was convicted of kidnapping and serious illegal detention. To note, at the time of conviction, there was as yet no distinct law criminalizing enforced disappearances.

The heart-rending story is just one of the many cases in the global phenomenon of enforced disappearances. The international definition of enforced disappearance, according to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, speaks of three elements:

• the arrest, detention, abduction, or any forms of deprivation of liberty of the victim;
• perpetrated by agents of the State (e.g. police or soldiers) or by persons or groups of persons that act with the tolerance, acquiescence or support of the state
• The refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

Enforced disappearance, therefore, are multiple violations of human rights, e.g. the right to liberty of individuals; right to life; right to personal and collective security; right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; right to physical integrity, life, and family.

A Glimpse of the Global Scourge of Enforced Disappearances

A glimpse of the global scourge brought the class to the history of the crime that dated back in the Night and Fog Decree of Hitler in 1941 which condemned Jews in occupied territories involved in offenses believed to have threatened Nazi Germany. As in present-day cases of enforced disappearances, the acts created fear among the population.

From then, the students were led to Latin America, giving emphasis on the Argentinian experience of the disappearance of 30,000 people disappeared. The dark night of the disappeared began when the Argentinian military junta staged a coup d’état presided by General Jorge Rafael Videla. The coup was followed by the dissolution of the Supreme Court and the Parliament. The students saw Images of the Parque de la Memoria, the ocean that is a witness to the ‘death flights’; the ex ESMA (Escuela de la Mecanica de la Armada, former School of the Army) located at the heart of Buenos Aires. It was where the disappeared were tortured, pregnant women made to deliver babies who were sold for adoption and that the mothers were brought to helicopters and thrown into the ocean to leave no evidence of detention.

Ms. Bacalso with the Global NGO Master’s Program (GNMP) second and
third cohort

The Argentinian experience was a product of the ‘Operation Condor’, characterized by a campaign of political repression and state terror carried out by the military states of the Southern Cone in the 1970s, through which the South American Intelligence agencies shared information to eradicate the ‘subversive threat’ of Communism in the hemisphere. Its main actors were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It underwent three phases, namely: first, an initial information exchange among the intelligence services of the military dictatorships that promoted it; second, a more practical phase characterized by the undercover action, an anti-opposition system in which the identity of the one who gave the order remained unknown; third, Condor’s assassination capability, the worldwide system of targeting and killing subversives.

For students taking a course on Global NGOs, it is important to take note of the role of victims’ families and NGOs. The disappearances of women and men led the formation of organizations of mothers; grandmothers; brothers and sisters and family members of the disappeared which led the movement against enforced disappearances and eventually achieved inroads in the prosecution of high ranking perpetrators. The indefatigable struggle of the victims’ families hand in hand with the popular support of civil society sustained for more than four decades garnered victories. With advances in science, more than a hundred disappeared children born in captivity when their mothers were detained and later killed, were reunited with their grandparents.

In the countries where AFAD has member organizations, such as Indonesia, India, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste, incidences of enforced disappearances occurred and continue to be committed in the context of authoritarian regimes, war against terrorism, war on drugs, internal conflict, and the struggle for independence.

Taking the Philippine example, the first case of enforced disappearance documented by the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) happened in 1971, a year before Martial Law was imposed by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was that of a university professor, Charlie del Rosario. This was followed by hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances coming from the farmers, workers, students, church people, and urban poor. The succeeding administrations of Corazon Aquino, Ferdinand Marcos, Fidel Ramos, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo committed more cases. The present war on drugs of the Duterte administration resulted in at least 27,000 extrajudicial killings and several undocumented cases of enforced disappearances.

A few years back, new disappearances occurred in Malaysia which led to the formation of CAGED (Citizens against Enforced Disappearances). On the occasion of this year’s International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30th of August, organized a conference in cooperation with the May 18 Memorial Foundation as an apt response to the budding problem and an affirmation of the imperative of international solidarity.

The Powerful Role of NGOs in Fighting Impunity

The series of lectures also tackled the indispensable role of NGOs in the drafting and negotiation of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The fastest ever process in crafting an international human rights treaty, the Convention’s drafting was expedited and successfully concluded in Room Xll of Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks to the participation of several national, regional and international organizations whose presence debunked the myth of some states stating that enforced disappearance occurred only in Latin America and is an issue of the past. The late French Ambassador Bernard Kessedjian’s excellent diplomatic skill in leading the then Inter-sessional Working Group to Elaborate a Draft Legally-Binding Normative Instrument for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and his heart for the victims, coupled with the unity of the NGOs in their positions in key provisions of the draft, ensured the victorious conclusion of the process. The Convention was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 2006, signed by 97 States and ratified by 58. The human rights treaty provides the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances and the right to truth, among others. Much remains to be done to achieve universal ratification and implementation.

NGO strategies, specifically those that are used by AFAD, were also discussed. Sharing on challenges in material and human resources made students understand the difficulty of NGOs in achieving the much-needed outcomes. This is not to mention the persecution human rights defenders experience in the course of concretizing the mission for a world without desaparecidos. The experience of the brutal assassination of Munir, Chairperson of AFAD from August 2003 until his death on September 7, 2004, was a big blow to Indonesian NGOs and to AFAD which was then orphaned by such a treacherous poisoning of arsenic in a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam via Singapore. It is important to note that the theme of enforced disappearance is a very ungratifying struggle wherein the outcome of producing the disappeared alive (and even dead) is very difficult. It needs decades to achieve results. But without consistency, persistence, and commitment, the breakthroughs and inroads achieved in Argentina, the reunification of disappeared children in Timor-Leste brought by soldiers to Indonesia during the Indonesian occupation – all these would not have been realized without the search for truth and justice.

In Africa, Western Sahara has one of the longest-running conflicts in the world. The continent’s last colony, it was sold to Morocco and Mauritania by Spain when it withdrew in 1976. Mauritania withdrew and Morocco annexed many of the remaining territories in defense of a ruling from the International Court of Justice. Morocco has committed systematic enforced disappearances since its invasion from 1975 to 1990. More than 4,500 have been victimized by enforced disappearances.

The latter part of the lectures guided the students to existing mechanisms at the UN, giving emphasis on the mandates of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The main point to ponder was that while the UN is not a prosecutorial body and produces little results, it is an important mechanism to approach in a region which does not have strong human rights mechanisms for protection, promotion, and defense of human rights. Its important role is to conduct international scrutiny and to sanction shame on violators.

The Role of the Academe

At the end of the nine-hour series of lectures, the students wrote a few notes on their learnings and insights. Zico Mulia, a student who worked with Ikohi-Indonesia, was the most participative in the whole process. He reflected on common pains and struggles of families of the disappeared in various parts of the world. He emphasized the importance of the victims’ role in the struggle for truth and justice.

One Malaysian student, Lee Suk Pei, recalled of the recent disappearances of pastors and activists in her country, mentioning the February 2017 disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh. What also struck her is the political nature of the United Nations and the role of bigger states over smaller states. Nevertheless, she reckoned the invaluable work that human rights defenders and activists have to do to make a difference in the lives of victims. She reiterated a conclusion that I quoted from Chilean lawyer Roberto Garreton: “The biggest crime any human rights defender can commit is to lost hope.”

The students’ future is promising. They have an important role to play as scholars and possibly as future practitioners in the vision for a world free from enforced disappearances and human rights violations.

1  See link: http://afad-online.org/galleries/videos/245-unsilenced