International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances 30 August 2020


[30 August 2020]

Veritas joins the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The special day is commemorated annually on the 30th of August. The commemoration of this important day serves to remind states on the need to enact specific laws that protect citizens against the crime of enforced disappearances.

Origins of the Day

Secret imprisonment, forced disappearance and abduction were frequently used by Latin American military dictatorships.  Relatives of the disappeared formed solidarity organisations and demonstrated for information about their loved ones.  The movement grew and a Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of Detained-Disappeared was set up and became a powerful lobby group.  The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance on18 December 1992.  As awareness of forced disappearances grew, an International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances was formed.  In December 2006 the United Nations General Assembly expressed its deep concern about the increase in enforced or involuntary disappearances in various regions of the world, including arrest, detention and abduction, when these are part of or amount to enforced disappearances, and the growing number of reports concerning harassment, ill-treatment and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared.  This was within days followed by the adoption of the text of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance [“the Convention”]. When the required number of countries had signed and ratified it, the Convention came into force on 23 December 2010.  To date 98 states have signed the Convention and 63 have ratified it.  [Zimbabwe has done neither.]

Definition of Enforced Disappearance

According to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 18 December 1992 as a body of principles for all States, an enforced disappearance occurs when:

"persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law."

UN Secretary General’s Speech

Secretary-General António Guterres said in his speech for this year’s commemoration:

“Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can nowadays be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents.

He also highlighted as particular concerns:

  • the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance;
  • the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations;
  • the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearances.
  • “Special attention must also be paid to specific groups of especially vulnerable people, like children and people with disabilities.”

He called on all States to ratify the Convention [link], underscoring that:

“Impunity compounds the suffering and anguish,” and that it is “critical to pursue credible and impartial judicial investigations”;  “The excruciating pain of old cases is still acute ..... making the crime a continuous presence in the lives of the loved ones of the lost”.  “Under international human rights law, families and societies have a right to know the truth about what happened.” 

Enforced Disappearances are a Serious Violation of Human Rights

Having been removed from the protective precinct of the law and "disappeared" from society, victims of enforced disappearance are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors.  Specific human rights that enforced disappearances regularly violate are:

  • The right to recognition as a person before the law;
  • The right to liberty and security of the person;
  • The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • The right to life, when the disappeared person is killed;
  • The right to an identity;
  • The right to a fair trial and to judicial guarantees;
  • The right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation;
  • The right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of a disappearance.

Both the Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force on 1 July 2002, state that, 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, therefore, is not subject to a statute of limitations. It gives victims' families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones.

The Impact of Forced Disappearances

On the victims themselves: The victims are frequently tortured and in constant fear for their lives. They are well aware that their families do not know what has become of them and that the chances are slim that anyone will come to their aid. Having been removed from the protective precinct of the law and “disappeared” from society, they are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors.  When women are victims of disappearance, they become particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.  Even if death is not the final outcome and the victim is eventually released from the nightmare, the physical and psychological scars often remain. 

On the families and friends of the victims: The families and friends of the victims experience slow mental anguish, not knowing whether the victim is still alive and, if so, where he or she is being held, under what conditions, and in what state of health. They alternate between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come.  Searching for the truth may expose them to danger.  The family’s distress is frequently compounded by the material consequences of the disappearance. The disappeared person is often the family’s main breadwinner.  Undertaking a search is costly; national legislation may make it impossible to draw a pension or receive other means of support in the absence of a death certificate. Economic and social marginalization is frequently the result. The serious economic hardships which usually accompany a disappearance are most often borne by women.  The loss of a parent through disappearance is also a serious violation of a child’s human rights.

Communities: Communities are directly affected by terror caused by a forced disappearance and families' reduced economic situation. 

Society at large: Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects society as a whole.


Zimbabwe has a history of enforced disappearances, with some activists having gone missing for years.  There is evidence that activists have been tortured in police custody, despite denials by police. To date, pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara, who was abducted on 9 March 2015, remains unaccounted for.  It is a tragedy that Patson Dzamara who dedicated himself to finding out what happened to his brother died recently without any answers.  Itai’s wife and the rest of the family continue to try and find out what happened to Itai.

Forced disappearances are gross human rights violations.  Section 53 of the Constitution provides for freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  Such fundamental human rights and freedoms should be enjoyed by every citizen without selective application.

This day should remind the government to expedite the search for missing persons, to find our what happened to Itai Dzamara and put an end to such crimes.  Article 2 of Resolution 47/133  of the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1992 clearly states that:

“No State shall practice, permit or tolerate enforced disappearances” and that

“States shall act at the national and regional levels and in cooperation with the United Nations to contribute by all means to the prevention and eradication of enforced disappearance”.

Now is also is an opportunity for government to show both its citizens and the international community which are criticising the government’s human rights record that the government has the political will to contradict these criticisms by acceding to the  Convention.


Download Document: