Forced disappearances are on the rise

Forced disappearances are on the rise as human rights violators cover their tracks

It seems the global campaign to protect human rights has had an unexpected side-effect: governments are changing their preferred methods of getting rid of political opponents.

Fear of scrutiny has prompted governments to switch from brazenly killing their opponents to forcing them to “disappear” – leaving their fate unclear, and helping leaders avoid accountability for their actions. The majority of disappearance cases go unsolved – in the absence of a body, forensic evidence or even eyewitness accounts, the people and groups responsible go unpunished.

Assessing the frequency of forced disappearances is difficult, but the practise seems to be becoming more widespread. Evidence from the Cingranelli and Richards Human Rights Database indicates the number of countries with 50 or more cases of forced disappearance almost doubled from 12 states in 2012 to 19 states in 2015 – the most recent year for which we have comparable data.

As of September 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances – which began collecting data in 1980 – had been notified of 45,120 active disappearance cases involving 91 states. And with many cases from before 1980 still unsolved, this figure very probably under-represents the total.

But perhaps even more disturbing than the large numbers of disappearances world-wide is the evidence I present with Caroline Payne in an article in The Journal of Human Rights. We’ve found that governments who are party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees people’s rights to liberty and security and is monitored by the United Nations, are in fact more likely than non-signatories to switch from conventional extrajudicial killings to forced disappearances.

Under the radar

Forced disappearance is a well-worn tool for human rights violators. In its modern iteration, it began with the Nazis, who frequently spirited people away during World War II under the “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) decree. Disappearances were notoriously used across in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, where a clutch of military dictatorships showed no compunction about simply vanishing inconvenient citizens from the face of the Earth.