Commemorating the International Day
of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances
Since 2011, the 30th of August has been commemorated by the United Nations [UN] as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. This followed a UN General Assembly resolution marking the coming into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearance [link]. According to the Convention, an enforced disappearance is:
"the arrest, detention or abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State, or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such person outside the protection of the law."
International Law on Enforced Disappearances
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force in 2010. It treats as victims not only those that have been “disappeared” but also their families and communities because they have to deal with the after-effects of losing someone and not having closure. The Convention further makes enforced disappearance an international crime. Under certain circumstances enforced disappearance also qualifies as a crime against humanity, and falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Zimbabwe has neither signed nor acceded to the Convention – despite recommendations that it should do so from member States of the United Nations during successive reviews of the country’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews.
The Law on Enforced Disappearances in Zimbabwe
Enforced disappearance is a violent act that demonstrates a blatant disregard of the Constitution. There is no single Zimbabwean law that criminalises enforced disappearance as such, but it violates a number of constitutional rights in our Constitution’s Declaration of Rights; indeed, no other crime cuts across the Declaration of Rights as much as this one. The fundamental rights that are affected by enforced disappearances include the rights to personal liberty, human dignity, personal security and, depending on the facts of the particular case, life, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to a fair hearing.
[In the absence of a specific crime of enforced disappearance, prosecutions could be brought for existing crimes such as kidnapping, assault etc – were it not for the problems posed by the anonymity and impunity enjoyed by most perpetrators.]
There are very few crimes as chilling, and with such adverse effects, as enforced disappearance. It not only affects the person who has been disappeared but also their immediate families, who suffer an anguished mixture of hope and fear. If, as is often case, the disappeared one is the family’s bread-winner, those left behind find it difficult to fend for themselves and lack the means to fight for the truth. Often communities suffer and the impact is felt on families and communities for generations to come.
Is this Day Relevant to Zimbabwe?
Yes it is. Zimbabwe has a long history of forced disappearances. The names of some can be recalled, probably because they hit press headlines, but there have been many more during Zimbabwe’s successive waves of conflict and violence.
Under the Smith regime a well known political leader Dr Edson Sithole was abducted together with his secretary Miriam Mhlanga, probably by Rhodesian state security agents, on October 15 1975. They were never found and their families have never had closure. There were also those whose bodies have been found in the mass graves of the liberation war – many not identified – and their families have never had closure. Countless people disappeared during the Gukurahundi, and many of the bodies found in mass graves from that time have not been identified. Patrick Nabanyama who was abducted in 2000 was never found but was eventually legally declared dead. In November 5, 2001, Cain Nkala, a Bulawayo war veterans' leader, was abducted from his home by ten men armed with AK rifles. He was taken away in a truck and later strangled to death. His body was found in a shallow grave eight days later. Itai Dzamara was abducted in March 2015 by five men while he was at a barbers shop in Harare's Glen View suburb. He was forced into a white truck with concealed number plates and driven off. He has not been seen since. He had previously been targeted by state security agents, beaten, abducted, and unlawfully detained. No one has ever been brought to book for these cases. What looks like another enforced disappearance occurred as recently as Saturday 26th August 2023, three days after polling day in the General Election: late in the evening CCC activist Nelson Mukwenha was violently picked up from his home in Highfield by four unidentified men and taken away in a Toyota Hilux vehicle with no registration plates. He was dumped outside Harare two days later, suffering from serious injuries consistent with his having been tortured. He is still hospitalised. [Source: Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights].
A Ray of Hope from Chile?
Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who has been in office for just over a year, marked this year’s International Day by announcing a national search plan to determine what happened to more than one thousand people who suffered enforced disappearance during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 1990, The plan will seek to establish the circumstances and conditions under which each person was forcibly disappeared and will guarantee access to government records and provide reparations and guarantees for victims’ families. This is the first time that the Chilean state has assumed responsibility for the search for victims of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Action in Bangladesh
To mark this year’s International Day, thousands of Bangladeshi protesters, many with black gags over their mouths and many holding portraits of their missing family members, have taken to the streets to demand information on hundreds of people who they claim were abducted by security forces. The protesters are demanding that the government provide information on the whereabouts of the missing persons and ensure their safe return. [Human Rights Watch said security forces have committed "over 600 enforced disappearances" since 2009 and nearly 100 remain missing with others later released, produced in court or reported to have "died during an armed exchange with security forces"]
Right to Truth and the Right to Justice
The UN International Day for the Right to Truth was celebrated earlier this year. As can be seen from the above examples from Zimbabwe, Chile and Bangladesh, the right to truth and the right to justice are bound up with the tragedies of forced disappearances. “The truth is an empowering and healing force. We embrace it for the past, the present and the future” [UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres]. The right to justice is a basic right in all countries that have any claim to be law-based. Even if justice is delayed, as it will be in all the cases we have mentioned in this bulletin, it will bring some solace and comfort to the families and communities of those who have been illegally disappeared. The lack of justice in cases of forced disappearances adds to a culture of impunity.
The Chilean and the Bangladeshi examples show that it is never too late to give up trying for truth and justice.
We stand with all families and communities affected by enforced disappearances in this country, whether the victims are well-known or only known to and remembered by a few. Justice denied is no justice at all. May those who know the truth be bold enough to serve justice and reveal the truth for the sake of closure for those left behind.
Enforced disappearances must never be used as a political tactic to silence those who oppose the government or who expose information which powerful people want to keep hidden.
Veritas encourages the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, civil society organisations, activists and other human rights advocates to push for Zimbabwe to adopt the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
We also encourage the President and the new parliamentarians to ensure that the Convention is signed and ratified. It will take true leadership to adopt the Convention and to end enforced disappearances in Zimbabwe. it cannot claim to be a new dispensation with respect for the rule of law when Zimbabweans are still at risk of being forcibly disappeared.