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African states cannot deny enforced disappearances any longer

The first hurdle towards tackling the deadly practice is getting governments to even acknowledge it.

Eva Nudd
19 November 2019
Algerian women hold up posters featuring photos of relatives who have disappeared, 2015.
Algerian women hold up posters featuring photos of relatives who have disappeared, 2015.
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Hakim Addad (Collectif des familles de disparus en Algérie)

In Sudan, almost a dozen protesters disappeared in June following a violent crackdown by the security forces or paramilitaries. 

In Libya, Seham Sergiwa, an MP and critic of military strongman Khalifa Haftar, has been missing since July after she was forcibly removed from her home in a violent raid. 

In Zimbabwe, where doctors have been on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, the president of the Hospital Doctors Association was kidnapped from his home. He was tortured by government forces for three days before being found, in a serious condition, several kilometres outside Harare. 

These three recent cases of enforced disappearances, the practice of secretly abducting or imprisoning a person, are just the tip of the iceberg. There may be hundreds more, but most are going unreported. 

No one has been prosecuted for these crimes, creating a culture of impunity and ongoing suffering for the victims. In Algeria, almost three decades after the civil war ended, relatives are still searching for their loved ones and fighting against a pervasive culture of impunity and silence to obtain answers.

The practice of enforced disappearances dates back to the colonial era in Africa, when enforced disappearances were used against freedom fighters and to instil blind obedience among the population. In recent years, some African states have relied on enforced disappearances to silence political opposition, activists and human rights defenders. 

Enforced disappearance is a particularly heinous human rights violation as it places victims outside the law, putting them at a high risk of torture and other violations. Many victims are tortured or killed or live in constant fear of being killed, while their families live in mental anguish, not knowing if their loved ones are still alive, where they are being held, or how they are being treated.

Since the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances was established in the 1980s, it has received 4,000 complaints of enforced disappearances involving African countries. However, the available statistics do not provide a full and accurate picture as many victims’ relatives are reluctant to report for fear of retaliation and reprisal. Distrust in government and a weak rule of law in African countries also hinder reporting by the victims’ relatives. 

African governments can no longer hide behind the cloak of denial.

There is almost no public information on the recurrence of this practice nationally or at the regional level. Many governments have for years denied the use of enforced disappearances. However, African governments can no longer hide behind the cloak of denial. 

The recent moral outrage caused by the latest disappearances in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Libya, may finally be the step needed to force governments to admit to the use of this devastating practice. 

The relatives of the victims, as well as civil society organisations, have been publicly shaming the governments, demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and seeking accountability. The use of social media and other tools has provided a better understanding of the crime of enforced disappearance, and an empowered civil society has been working to demand justice for the victims of this crime.

Last month the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights discussed, at a session organised jointly by REDRESS, the practice of enforced disappearances in Africa during one of its main sessions. 

Zainabou Sylvie Kayitesi, chairman of the commission, highlighted that there is no regional treaty tackling the problem of enforced disappearances in Africa. This distinguishes the African and American continents, where the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons in 1994 as a way to tackle a crime that had been widespread during the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 

Kayitesi also noted that at a global level, only 16 out of 54 African countries have either signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the main international treaty on enforced disappearances.

The African Commission should seize the current momentum around the issue of enforced disappearances to ensure that the plight of victims is heard. One way of doing this would be by adopting comprehensive guidelines for African states to prevent, investigate and prosecute the crime of enforced disappearance in the continent, and to provide reparations to victims.

The efforts of the African Commission should trigger Member States of the African Union to work towards the drafting and eventual adoption of a regional treaty that shows political commitment to eradicate this grave crime in the continent.  

Only by acknowledging that enforced disappearances are happening in their territories will African states will prove that they are serious about eradicating this practice and providing justice and reparations to those that suffer from it.

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