Way back in 2006, not long after I had first started working as a journalist in Geneva, I met an elderly woman, who had traveled all the way from Argentina, to attend the UN Human Rights Council. Her wish, to persuade member states to back a proposed convention against enforced disappearances, by telling them her own story.This content was published on May 4, 2021 - 16:30
She had brought photographs with her, of her beautiful daughter, who disappeared, along with thousands of others, during the notorious years of Argentina’s junta, never to be seen again.
There is nothing, perhaps, so determined, so quietly courageous, as the relatives of the disappeared. But that unflagging effort to find the fate of the missing loved one is also born out of desperation – the pain of uncertainty is unbearable. Only knowing that fate, however terrible it may be, can bring closure.
The woman I met had taken part in the famous “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” demonstrations in Buenos Aires. Despite the violently repressive regime, they stood outside Argentina’s presidential palace week after week, demanding to know what happened to their loved ones. Listening to them now, on crackly archive film, their suffering is still raw.
“Where are our children,” cries one mother. “We don’t know if they are dead or alive. What if they are sick, or cold, or hungry? We don’t know.”
A convention is born
Member states at that session of the UN Human Rights Council heard that suffering, and acted. They approved the draft Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced Disappearance, and, four years later, once it had been ratified by 32 states, it became law.
The story of exactly how that happened, who campaigned for the convention, and how it works today, is the subject of this week’s episode of the Inside Geneva podcast.
I’m joined by Olivier de Frouville, the vice-chair of the UN Committee on Enforced Disppearances, who tells me how the committee is able to act “within hours” on behalf of someone who has been disappeared, formally requesting the government of the country concerned to make every effort to find the person.
Cordula Droege, chief legal officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, explains how the ICRC recognized “a gap” in international law, despite the ICRC’s own mandate to find those missing in conflict, and gave its backing to a convention specifically prohibiting enforced disappearance.
And Aileen Bacalso, president of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances, talks about her family’s traumatic experience in the Philippines, and her decades long campaign on behalf of the disappeared.
It’s a fascinating and moving discussion, so I hope you’ll listen. What I didn’t know, before researching the episode, was that the convention whose birth I reported on all those years ago has only lukewarm support.
While 170 countries have ratified the Convention against Torture, only 63 have ratified the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. Big democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom continue to withhold their support. Countries with painful firsthand experience of enforced disappearance – Albania, Bosnia, Argentina, Chile – have ratified it.
Switzerland, being reviewed by de Frouville’s committee this month, finally got around to ratifying the convention in 2016 – 10 years after it first opened for signature. Some countries, de Frouville and Droege think, don’t bother with the convention because they have a “it could never happen here” mentality. But given the surprises our volatile and often violent world can spring on us, that attitude is, Droege suggests, shortsighted since “you never know what the future holds, so it’s good to ratify these conventions because they provide a safety net when things go wrong”.
A more immediate reason for developed democracies to ratify is, de Frouville argues, because of universal jurisdiction, the practice under which a country with evidence that someone living on their territory has violated international law can prosecute that person. Switzerland, if it thinks someone living here has violated the convention on enforced disappearances, can take that individual to court, regardless of the person’s nationality, and of where the alleged crime took place.
Such prosecutions are already happening in several European countries in relation to alleged war crimes, and de Frouville hopes the increasing use of universal jurisdiction will lead to more prosecutions over enforced disappearance too.
Comfort for families
So has the convention brought comfort to the families of the disappeared? Bacalso thinks it has. Despite the low number of ratifications, the fact the convention does now exist is, she believes “a moral victory”. And the committee is an official UN body where families can take urgent requests for information and know they will be listened to.
But the search for answers can still cause heartbreak. When that elderly lady arrived in Geneva to campaign for the convention, she already knew the fate of her daughter, although it had taken years to find it.
Her daughter, a young woman expecting her first child, was arrested by Argentina’s military junta. Detained for months, and tortured, when the baby girl was born she was taken from her mother and put up for adoption in another country. The young mother was forced into a helicopter, flown out over the sea, and thrown out. Thousands of young Argentinians were murdered in this way.
The grandmother eventually managed to find her adopted granddaughter, now growing up with a new family in a neighbouring Latin American country. Tragically, neither the girl nor her adoptive family wanted to restore contact.
It is this suffering, fortunately unimaginable for most of us, that drives the families of the disappeared, that motivated that elderly lady to come to Geneva years after her own terrible loss had been confirmed. Because no one should have to suffer like that. As de Frouville says, for the families, enforced disappearance, not knowing the fate of a loved one, is actually torture, and that’s why all those countries who have ratified the Convention against Torture should ratify this convention too.