‘The most terrific instrument of repression’

Enforced disappearance is a technique to conceal crimes committed by state agencies. While human rights organisations continue raising concerns, very little has changed. Political leaders and activists of the opposition including youths and a garment labour leader were abducted this year, some of whose bodies were later recovered. None of the cases have had any conclusive investigation. Rainer Huhle, member of the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearance spoke to Saad Hammadi during his recent visit to Bangladesh on the phenomenon
The definition of enforced disappearance according to international human rights laws suggests secret abduction or detention of a person by a state or political organisation without acknowledging the act. While this is an infringement of human rights, how does the UN as the apex body of international organisations, view the redress for the victims of enforced disappearance?
Reparation is a very important point in the convention.  It is one of the state obligations to repair or redress victims. In material terms it can be compensation but in moral terms, the state has to reinstitute the victims in the social setting.

What about trials?
There are clear obligations for states to prosecute and bring to justice the perpetrators. It is also a relief for the victims to see that the state makes clear that this is a crime.

Is there an example you could give, where justice has been served to victims of enforced disappearance anywhere in the world or where state agencies or the perpetrators were tried for the offence?
During the military dictatorship in Argentina between late ’70s and early ’80s many women were abducted and their children were given away to families who wanted to adopt them, mostly military families.
After change in the regime in 1983, during a democratic period, little by little the judiciary became independent and started investigating the cases. They brought some of the most important perpetrators including the military generals who were earlier head of governments, to justice. Most of them are jailed now in Argentina. It was a process for over quite a few years but finally they succeeded. It took about 30 years till 2003 to bring the perpetrators to justice.
There were also countries where there weren’t military dictatorship like Columbia, Mexico and other Latin American countries and still there were enforced disappearance.
Unfortunately, very few cases are investigated well. The numbers I heard from Bangladesh, the courts and police should be able to investigate the disappearances. It also depends on the brevity of the civil society organisations to document the cases. You need evidences.

How alarming would you consider the state of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh?
It would be audacious of me to issue statements on this country which I didn’t know before. Bangladesh is not a state party to the convention and we have no formal competence to judge the country.

Two of the prominent cases I can recall of are disappearances of Chowdhury Alam and Ilias Ali. Their bodies have not been found. The families have been requesting the government to trace their whereabouts. As member of the committee, what do you usually see as the motives behind committing such disappearances?
It is the most terrific instrument of repression. It causes much more terror, uncertainty and a permanent pain for those affected. It can also be like security forces committed torture and then they want to conceal the crime. It is more difficult to investigate enforced disappearance than killing because killing leaves evidence whereas a disappearance usually leaves no trace. Normally there are quite a few things together.

A lot of conventions of the United Nations are signed and ratified by the member states but not complied with. Do the states have any repercussions for non compliance?
The only instrument that the committee has in case of non-compliance, which is really a problem because many states do not comply with the conventions, is reporting. This is public and tells the states if a country does not comply with its obligations. We have no right to intervene in an operative sense. Our intervention is limited to reminding the states of its obligations and insisting that it takes certain measures. If the states stubbornly deny complying with their obligations, we cannot do more than repeat our criticism.

Please share with us the roles and function of the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances?
The committee is a body that supervises the convention on enforced disappearance. We watch over accomplishment of the convention where it is effectuated by the member states. We are only competent for states that ratify to the convention. For these states, they have to write reports, send it to the committee and we write our own concluding observation on these reports and make recommendations. We are also entitled to interpret authentically the convention in case there is lack of clarity. We decide the right understanding of each of the paragraph of the convention. We can make specific recommendations and invite the states to follow them but that is where it ends.

How many countries have so far ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance?
For the moment it is 34. Don’t forget, the convention is only a year and a half old. There were a minimum number of 20 states to ratify for it to enter into force and that happened in December 2010. We expect that many more states will accede to this convention including Bangladesh.

-The interview was originally published in New Age Xtra on December 7, 2012


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