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The Horribleness Of Enforced Disappearances

By Iqbal Alimohamed

14 December, 2011

Last month I had lunch with Mugi in Geneva. Mugi is 38, Indonesian, with a pleasant, earnest manner, and a quiet sense of humor. I knew why he was in Switzerland and I wanted to hear his story.

He was 19 when it happened. From his village in Java, he had moved to Jakarta to pursue higher studies. Indonesia was then ruled by a corrupt and brutal military dictatorship under President Suharto. Mugi joined the Pro-Democracy Movement as a student activist. During a government clampdown on protesters, Mugi was arrested by the military, with 13 other students, blindfolded and thrown into a dark cell. His only recollection of his 3-day ordeal was of suffering excruciating pain from continuing electric shocks, interspersed with deafening sounds of wailing sirens and roaring waterfalls, until he fell into a coma. He was transferred to prison for three weeks before being released.

Mugi was in Geneva to attend a Conference of the “International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances, ICAED, bringing together groups and individuals from around the world-surviving victims, friends and family members of the disappeared and many human rights organizations. For me, an invited Guest Observer, the Conference was an eye-opener. Sovereign states, directly or through hired agents, commit horrendous acts of abductions, torture, rape and wanton killing, with impunity and without any accountability. As speaker after speaker gave their testimony, it became evident that in over half of the countries of the world, disappearances, torture and inhumane treatment are standard practices. Yet, all these countries are members of the UN and are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 5 states “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances constitute the most abominable form of human rights violations. Disappearances inflict intolerable pain on the victim’s mind, body and spirit. Worse, the victims’ relatives-parents, spouses, children-also suffer deep anguish due to separation, not knowing if their loved ones are alive, fear for their own safety, unable to grieve, with no legal support and economic deprivation. In resorting to enforced disappearances, states attempt to hide their practices of torture and extra-judicial killings.

The United Nations has faced this problem since the mid seventies following enforced disappearances by repressive regimes in Central and South America, the Balkans, Asia and Africa. An initial UN Working Group was established in 1980. On 20 December 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. It came into force on 23 December 2010. To date, however, only 90 of the 193 UN member states have signed the Convention and only 30 have ratified it. Conspicuously absent from the list of signatories are the USA, Canada, Russia and China.

A UN Committee now exists to promote wider ratification of the Convention by governments and to monitor effective implementation of its provisions. Many governments have not yet codified these provisions into their domestic legislation. This process is necessary for perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions and justice rendered, including reparations to victims and their families. The UN Committee is presently dealing with a backlog of 45,000 reported cases; the true number may never be known. In the case of the USA too, its setting up of secret detention centers in other countries and secretly disappearing those it regards as enemy combatants, under the so-called ‘renditions’ policy, is misguided. Amnesty International and the Centre for Constitutional Rights have documented 50 such disappeared persons to date.

It is time for governments everywhere to ponder the absolute necessity to end the phenomenon of Involuntary Disappearances through a global campaign. Cases must be brought before international Human Rights courts and bodies: the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee, Committee Against Torture, the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances. As we observe this year’s Human Rights Day, it is hoped that democratic governments that esteem the values and ideals of true democracy with respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, will re-examine their own policies and practices to assess if these meet the test of the world’s scrutiny.

As I ended my lunch that day with Mugi (full name Mugiyanto ), I asked him if he had had any family visits during his imprisonment. “Yes” he said. “My father heard of my arrest through a newspaper report and came to see me. I did not say any thing to him. I just sat there, crying silently, choking with emotion.” He added, “I still do not know what happened to all my friends, or even if they are alive.” Mugi now runs a small Indonesian NGO, (IHOKI) and is also Chairman of AFAD (Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances).

-The author, a Canadian citizen, has served as Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Australia, Japan, Malaysia and the Sudan. He is an active member of the Geneva Writers Group and recently participated in the ICAED Conference and related UN working Group and Committee meetings on Enforced Disappearances.




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