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For other topics related to "disappearance", see Disappeared (disambiguation) and Desaparecidos (disambiguation).

A forced disappearance (or enforced disappearance) occurs when a person is secretly imprisoned or killed by agents of the state or by another party, such as a terrorist or criminal group. The party responsible for a disappearance does not admit to having carried out the act, thereby placing the victim outside the protection of the law.

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force on 1 July 2002, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a "forced disappearance" qualifies as a crime against humanity, and thus is not subject to a statute of limitations. On 20 December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Often forced disappearance implies murder. The victim in such a case is first abducted, then illegally detained, and often tortured; the victim is then killed, and the body is then hidden. Typically, a murder will be surreptitious, with the corpse disposed of in such a way as to prevent it ever being found, so that the person apparently vanishes. The party committing the murder has deniability, as there is no body to prove that the victim has actually died.

Linguistic considerations

In the case of forced disappearance, the word disappear is often used transitively. Victims, who are those who have disappeared, or the disappeared, are said to have been disappeared, rather than the more usual have disappeared. The perpetrators have disappeared them, rather than made them disappear. Of course, in these circumstances, both the formal expressions "was made to disappear" or "was caused to disappear", and the transitive usage, are euphemisms: these people have presumably been tortured and murdered.

Similar considerations apply in Spanish: instead of (él/ella) desapareció (he/she disappeared), one may say (ellos) lo/la desaparecieron (they disappeared him).

Both the English noun phrase the disappeared, and the Spanish los desaparecidos, are often understood nowadays to refer to victims of state terror.

Mandarin Chinese speakers have also begun to use a similar language structure, saying that missing dissidents have "被失踪" (been disappeared). The use of the passive 被 character has also been used to imply government misconduct when paired with other verbs not normally taking the passive, such as 被自杀 (been suicided) and 被和谐 (been harmonized, darkly echoing the government's justification of drastic measures to promote a stable and harmonious society.)

The term desaparecidos and associated verb and English expressions originally referred to South America.

Metaphorical use

The idea of forced disappearance has created the new usage described above. The use of disappeared in this sense is now sometimes extended to political or social commentary not involving crimes against the person. Embarrassing documents which are claimed to have been lost in transit, or are otherwise unavailable, are also said to have been "disappeared".


NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch record in their annual report the number of known cases of forced disappearance.


During the Algerian Civil War, which began in 1992 as Islamist guerrillas attacked the military government which had annulled an Islamist electoral victory, thousands of people were forcibly disappeared. Disappearances continued up to the late 1990s, but thereafter dropped off sharply with the decline in violence in 1997. Some of the disappeared were kidnapped or killed by the guerrillas, but others are presumed to have been taken by state security services. This latter group has become the most controversial. Their exact numbers remain disputed, but the government has acknowledged a figure of just over 6,000 disappeared, now presumed dead. Opposition sources claim the real number is closer to 17,000. (The war claimed a total toll of 150–200,000 deaths). In 2005, a controversial amnesty law was approved in a referendum, which, among other things, granted financial compensation to families of disappeared, but also effectively ended the police investigations into the crimes.[1]


During Argentina's Dirty War and Operation Condor, political dissidents were heavily drugged and then thrown alive out of airplanes far out over the Atlantic Ocean, leaving no trace of their passing. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny that they had been killed. People murdered in this way (and in others) are today referred to as "the disappeared" (los desaparecidos), and this is where the modern usage of the term derives. An activist group called "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo", formed by mothers of those victims of the dictatorship, were the inspiration for a song by Irish rock band U2, "Mothers of the Disappeared" (see also the Valech Report for Chile). Rubén Blades also composed a song called "Desaparecidos", in honor of those political dissidents. Mathematician Boris Weisfeiler is thought to have disappeared near Colonia Dignidad, a German colony founded by anti-Communist Paul Schäfer in Chile, which was used as a detention center by the DINA, the secret police.[2]

The phrase was recognized by Argentinian de facto President, General Jorge Rafael Videla, who said in a press conference during the military government which he commanded in Argentina: "They are neither dead nor alive, they disappeared". It is thought that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, up to 30,000 people (9,000 verified named cases, according to the official report by the CONADEP)[3] were subjected to forced disappearance.

Russia - Chechnya


Russian rights groups estimate there have been about 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya since 1999.[4] Most of them are believed to be buried in several dozen mass graves.

The Russian government failed to pursue any accountability process for human rights abuses committed during the course of the conflict in Chechnya. Unable to secure justice domestically, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In March 2005 the court issued the first rulings on Chechnya, finding the Russian government guilty of violating the right to life and the prohibition of torture with respect to civilians who had died or been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Russia's federal troops.[5]


In 2009, Colombian prosecutors reported that an estimated 28,000 people have been disappeared by paramilitary and guerrilla groups during the nation's ongoing internal conflict. In 2008, the corpses of 300 victims were identified and 600 more during the following year. According to Colombian officials, it will take many years before all the bodies that have been recovered are identified.[6]

Equatorial Guinea

According to the UN Human Rights Council Mission to Equatorial Guinea [7] agents of the Equatorial Guinean Government have been responsible for abducting refugees from other countries in the region, and holding them in secret detention. For example, in January 2010 [8] four men were abducted from Benin by Equatorial Guinean security forces, held in secret detention, subjected to torture, and executed in August 2010 immediately after being convicted by a military court.


During World War II, Nazi Germany set up secret police forces, including branches of the Gestapo in occupied countries, which they used to hunt down known or suspected dissidents or partisans. This tactic was given the name Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), to describe those who disappeared after being arrested by Nazi forces without any warning. The Nazis also applied this policy against political opponents within Germany. Most victims were killed on the spot, or sent to concentration camps, with the full expectation that they would then be killed.


Guatemala was one of the first countries where forced disappearances were used as a generalized practice of terror against a civilian population. Forty five thousand people were disappeared during the years of the armed conflict that ended in 1996.


Ensaaf, a partisan NGO dedicated to the cause of Khalistani Sikh Extremism their front, "Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG)" released a pamphlet in January 2009, claiming "verifiable quantitative"[sic] findings on mass disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the Indian state of Punjab, opposing mainstream portrayal of the Punjab counterinsurgency as a successful campaign.[9] The report by Ensaaf and HRDAG, “Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India,” presents empirical findings suggesting that the intensification of counterinsurgency operations in Punjab in the early 1990s was accompanied by a shift in state violence from targeted lethal human rights violations to systematic enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, accompanied by mass “illegal cremations.”



At least tens of thousands of people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein, many of them during Operation Anfal.


Following the Iran student riots in 1999, more than 70 students disappeared. In addition to an estimated 1,200–1,400 detained, the "whereabouts and condition" of five students named by Human Rights Watch remained unknown.[10] The United Nations has also reported other disappearances.[11] After each manifestation, from teacher unions to women's rights activists, at least some disappearances are expected.[12][13] Dissident writers have been the target of disappearances.[14]

Morocco - Western Sahara

File:Aminetou Mandela.jpg

Sahrawi human rights defender Aminatou Haidar is a former "disappeared" in Moroccan prisons, between 1987 and 1991. Because of that imprisonment, she suffers photophobia, gastric problems and other dolences.

There are many well-documented cases about people kidnapped and murdered by Morocco's government.[15] Since Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, somewhere around 1,500 suspected Polisario Front sympathizers and other independence activists have been abducted.[15] In several cases, whole families were taken in retaliation for Sahrawis joining the POLISARIO forces in Tindouf, Algeria. The disappeared were subjected to torture, and held in secret detention camps such as Tazmamart and El Aaiun's Black Prison, where many died due to poor conditions or lack of medical treatment. In the early 90s, hundreds of Sahrawis were released, and others proclaimed officially dead after the signing of a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, but nowadays more than 542 remain unaccounted for. Many of the released prisoners have since been re-arrested for protesting their detention (Brahim Dahane, Aminatou Haidar...).[15]

In February 2007, Morocco signed an international convention protecting people from forced disappearance,[16][17] but the Moroccan legislation allows the assassination of Sahrawis, and usually lets the killers go free, like in the Hamdi Lembarki case in 2005.[18] In October 2007, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón has declared the competence of the Spanish jurisdiction in the Spanish-Sahrawi disappearances between 1976 and 1987 in Western Sahara, and there have been charges brought against some Moroccan military heads, some of them currently in power as of 2010, like the head of Morocco's armed forces, general Housni Benlismane, charged for the detention and disappearance campaign of Smara in 1976.[19] His substitute, judge Fernando Pablo Ruz, reopened the cause in November 2010.[20]


In Pakistan’s province, Balochistan, the military has been conducting military operation since 2000. Since then hundreds of people have gone missing, according to the reports of human rights organisations and Baloch nationalist parties. According to Dr. Jahanzaib Jamaldini, Acting Vice-President of Balochistan National Party (BNP) that "We have a list of more than 3000 thousands people who have been arrested by the intelligence agencies from different parts of Balochistan. The agencies picked up the Baloch youths from different parts of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab and tortured them severely." Aftab Sherpao, the federal interior minister had revealed when talking to media persons in December 2005 in Turbat that nearly 4000 people had been arrested from Balochistan but after a few days, official sources claimed that the federal minister had only referred to those illegal immigrants who had trespassed the Pak-Iran border in 2005. A list of missing Baloch activists and citizens are also quoted in a pamphlet entitled Waiting for Truth and Justice published by Balochistan National Party (BNP).[citation needed]

Northern Ireland

The disappeared is the name given to sixteen people believed or confirmed to have been abducted, killed and buried in unmarked graves by republican paramilitaries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. [21] In 1999 the IRA admitted to killing nine of the sixteen, and gave information on the location of the bodies, but only three bodies were recovered on that occasion, one of which had already been exhumed and placed in a coffin. [22] The best-known case was that of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of ten who had lost her husband a few months before she disappeared, and who the IRA claimed was an informer.[23] The search for her remains was abandoned in 1999[24] but her body was discovered in 2003, a mile from where the IRA had indicated, by a family out on a walk.[23] Since then four more victims have been found, one in 2008[25] and three in 2010. [26][27][28] The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, established in 1999, is the body responsible for locating the disappeared. [29]

Soviet Union

Vanished commissar: Nikolai Yezhov retouched

The damnatio memoriae method of disappearance was practiced in the Soviet Union. When an important political figure was convicted, for instance during the Great Purge, artists would retouch them out of photographs; books, records and histories would be recalled, rewritten or re-enacted; pictures, busts and statues would be taken down; people would be discouraged from talking about them, and the government would never mention them again. They were made to have never existed - unpersoned - in the same way as was used by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Notable examples range from prominent Russian revolutionaries who took part in the Russian Revolution but disagreed with Bolsheviks, to some of the most devoted Stalinists (for instance Nikolai Yezhov) who fell into disfavor.

Disappearance was a special clause in the penal sentence: "without the right to correspondence". In many cases this phrase hid the execution of the convicted, although the sentence may have been for, say, "10 years of labor camps without the right to correspondence". The fate of tens of thousands of people only became known after the 1950s De-Stalinization.

Sri Lanka

According to a United Nations 1999 study, Sri Lanka [30] has the second highest number of disappeared people in the world. Since 1980, 12,000[31] Sri Lankans have gone missing after being detained by security forces. More than 55,000 people have been killed over the issue in the past 27 years. The figures are still lower than the current Sri Lankan government's own estimate of 17,000 people missing),[32] which was made after it came to power with a commitment to correct the human rights issues.

In 2003, the International Red Cross (ICRC)[33] restarted investigations into the disappearance of 11,000 people during Sri Lanka's civil war.

On 29 May 2009, the British newspaper The Times acquired confidential U.N. documents that record nearly 7,000 civilian deaths in the no-fire zone up to the end of April. The toll then surged, the paper quoted unidentified U.N. sources as saying, with an average of 1,000 civilians killed each day until 19 May, when the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels. That means the final death toll is more than 20,000, The Times said. "Higher," a U.N. source told the paper. "Keep going." The United Nations has previously said 7,000 civilians were killed in fighting between January and May. A top Sri Lankan official called the 20,000 figure unfounded. Gordon Weiss, a U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, told CNN that a large number of civilians were killed, though he did not confirm the 20,000 figure.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused[34] Sri Lanka of “causing untold suffering”.


Cases of forced disappearance in Syria started when late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad started to face opposition from citizens in the late 70's. While he was able to buy elite merchants of Damascus through Badr el-Deen Shallah, the general public was outraged by Assad's policies in ruling the country and the rise of corruption. From then on, any voice opposing or questioning the Syrian government was silenced by forced disappearance or threats. Bashar al-Assad took his father's policy further and considered any voice questioning anything about Syria's political, economical, social, or otherwise policies should be monitored and when needed, detained and accused of weakening national empathy. A recent case is Tal Mallohi, a 19-year old blogger summoned for interrogation on 27 December 2009 and never went back home.


On 12 March 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit, a well-known Thai Muslim activist lawyer in the kingdom's southern region, was kidnapped by Thai police and has since disappeared. Officially listed as a disappeared person, his presumed widow, Mrs. Ankhana Neelapaichit, has been seeking justice for her husband since Somchai first went missing. On 11 March 2009, Mrs. Neelapaichit was part of a special panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to commemorate her husband's disappearance and to keep attention focused on the case and on human rights abuses in Thailand.


Turkish human rights groups accuse the Turkish security forces of being responsible for the disappearance of more than 1,500 civilians of the Kurdish minority in the 1980s and 1990s, in attempts to root out the PKK. Each year Yakar-Der, the Turkish Human Rights Association (İHD) and the International Committee Against Disappearances (ICAD), organise a series of events in Turkey to mark the "Week of Disappeared People".

In April 2009, state prosecutors in Turkey ordered the excavation of several sites around Turkey believed to hold Kurdish victims of state death squads from the 1980s and 1990s, in response for Turkey's security establishment to come clean about past abuses. [35]

United States

Since 2001, as part of its War on Terror, the United States' Central Intelligence Agency has operated a network of off-shore detention facilities, commonly known as black sites, which are used as part of the system of extraordinary rendition used to hold and interrogate "high-value" foreign combatants captured during the US's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ACLU has stated they consider extraordinary rendition to be an illegal form of forced disappearance and called for the detainees to receive trials and the camps to be closed; the US government argues that since the combatants are captured while participating in active military conflict against the United States and officially designated as "Illegal Combatants" under the Geneva Convention, the detentions are legal under international law.[36]

Human rights law

In international human rights law, disappearances at the hands of the state have been codified as "enforced" or "forced disappearances" since the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. For example, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court defines enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity, and the practice is specifically addressed by the OAS's Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. There is also some authority indicating that enforced disappearances occurring during armed conflict,[37] such as the Third Reich's Night and Fog program, may constitute war crimes.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006, also states that the widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearances constitutes a crime against humanity. Crucially, it gives victims' families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones. The Convention provides for the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance, as well as the right for the relatives of the disappeared person to know the truth. The Convention contains several provisions concerning prevention, investigation and sanctioning of this crime, as well as the rights of victims and their relatives, and the wrongful removal of children born during their captivity. The Convention further sets forth the obligation of international co-operation, both in the suppression of the practice, and in dealing with humanitarian aspects related to the crime. The Convention establishes a Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which will be charged with important and innovative functions of monitoring and protection at international level. Currently, an international campaign of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances is working towards universal ratification of the Convention.

Disappearances work on two levels: not only do they silence opponents and critics who have disappeared, but they also create uncertainty and fear in the wider community, silencing others who would oppose and criticise. Disappearances entail the violation of many fundamental human rights. For the disappeared person, these include the right to liberty, the right to personal security and humane treatment (including freedom from torture), the right to a fair trial, to legal counsel and to equal protection under the law, and the right of presumption of innocence among others. Their families, who often spend the rest of their lives searching for information on the disappeared, are also victims.


  1. Algeria: Amnesty Law Risks Legalizing Impunity for Crimes Against Humanity (Human Rights Watch, 14-4-2005)
  2. Nagy-Zekmi, Silvia; Ignacio Leiva, Fernando (2003). Democracy in Chile. Sussex Academic Press. p. 22. ISBN 1845190815.
  3. [1]
  4. Russia censured over Chechen man BBC
  5. European Court Rules Against Moscow Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2 March, 2005M
  6. [2]
  7. Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel,inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak UNHCR
  8. Execution of four men in Equatorial Guinea condemned Amnesty International
  9. "Violent Deaths and Enforced Disappearances During the Counterinsurgency in Punjab, India". Ensaaf. 2009-01-26. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  10. New Arrests And "Disappearances" Of Iranian Students
  11. UN experts urge Iran to observe human rights norms in case of dead journalist
  12. BBC report
  13. "Clashes at Iran teachers protest". BBC News. 2002-01-26. Retrieved 2010-05-02.
  14. WAN protests disappearances in Iran
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Template:Es AFADEPRESA Asocciation of families of Saharaui Convicts and Disappearances: Disappearances
  16. [3]
  17. [4]
  18. La legislación marroquí ampara el asesinato de saharauis.
  19. "Genocide investigations into Morocco's Sahara occupation". Afrol News. 2007-10-31. Retrieved 27-11-2010.
  20. [5] (Spanish)
  21. "The Disappeared". Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  22. Maillot, Agnes (2005). New Sinn Féin: Irish Republicanism in the Twenty-first Century. Routledge. pp. 162-165. ISBN 9780415321976. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Maillot (2005), p. 165.
  24. "'Disappeared' families put lives on hold". BBC News. 20 July 1999. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  25. "Funeral for Disappeared victim". BBC News. 22 December 2008. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  26. "Funeral for Charlie Armstrong - 'Disappeared' victim". BBC News. 16 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  27. "Body found in 'Disappeared' search for Peter Wilson". BBC News. 2 November 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  28. "Remains were 'Disappeared' Crossmaglen man Gerry Evans". BBC News. 29 November 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  29. "Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains: Home page". Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  30. "S Lanka rapped over 'disappeared'". BBC News. 2008-03-06. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  31. "Sri Lanka's disappeared thousands". BBC News. 1999-03-28. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  33. "Red Cross tackles war missing". BBC News. 2003-02-19. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  34. Sengupta, Somini (2009-04-23). "U.S. Faults Sri Lanka on Civilian Woes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  35. "Turkey Begins Dig for Missing Kurds". Voice of America News. 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
  37. Enforced Disappearance as a Crime Under International Law

See also



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