Renewed calls for action against forced disappearances

Enforced disappearances continue across Africa, notably in conflict situations. The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) defines them as the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups.’

They are characterised by ‘concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law.’ In Africa, enforced disappearance is a tool of oppression to silence opposition leaders, human rights activists and minority groups, among others. People also go missing when they are forced to use dangerous and irregular migration routes.

The Institute of Security Studies hosted a webinar on 30 August to mark International Day of the Disappeared. Maya Sahli-Fadel, ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Internally Displaced Persons and Migrants in Africa, called on member states to ratify protocols and conventions dealing with the issue. ACHPR is the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

In Africa, enforced disappearance is a tool of oppression to silence opponents 

Sahli-Fadel said the first step was for more African countries to ratify ICPPED. Currently, only 64 countries have done so, only 18 of which are African, with very few countries having incorporated it into their domestic laws that criminalise enforced disappearances.

Legislation lacking on enforced disappearances

The African Union (AU) does not have legal frameworks on enforced disappearances. Enforced disappearances can be referenced only to rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights or in domestic legislations. The lack of a legal framework on the continent hinders prevention and effective remedies for the victims and families of involuntary disappearances.

Only in 2018 did the AU, through ACHPR, adopt a resolution to expand the mandate of the working group on extra-judicial and arbitrary killings to include enforced disappearance. In 2020, the AU Commission passed another resolution that provides guiding principles and identifies member states’ obligations in responding to enforced disappearances. These resolutions are an indication that attention to enforced disappearance is gaining some ground. However, they are still not binding.

There is no legal instrument against enforced disappearance, leaving victims with limited redress

The AU has made significant strides to provide legal frameworks to protect vulnerable groups. These include the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (Kampala Convention).

The 2015 Draft Protocol on the Specific Aspects of the Right to a Nationality and the Eradication of Statelessness in Africa is yet to be adopted. However, there is no African-specific legal instrument for protection against enforced disappearance, leaving victims with very limited redress. Recognition through legal and policy frameworks is key in the fight against enforced disappearance.

The armed conflict connection

In many African countries, enforced disappearances occur in armed conflict contexts, with increasing numbers of people reported missing. In South Africa, for example, from 1985 to 1994, more than 2 000 people disappeared during apartheid political unrest. In Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, thousands of people disappeared during war, while more than 8 000 disappeared in the 1990s Algerian civil war.

Disappearances today reflect a new trend of violent extremism, which has led to counter measures. The 2014 to 2018 schoolgirl kidnappings by Boko Haram and those of students and clergy by Cameroonian separatists in 2019 reflect the involvement of both state and non-state actors.

Journalists continue to be a target, particularly in dictatorial regimes. Several have disappeared in Zimbabwe, including Itai Dzamara, missing since 2015, and in Mozambique, where radio journalist Ibrahima Abu Mbaruco went missing in April 2020.  

In Mali, abductions of civilians by unidentified armed groups are a worrying and underreported phenomenon of the war. Since 2017, 935 such incidents have been recorded. Most of these are believed to be linked to conflict and violence. Thus, with the increasing number of crises on the continent, the number of missing and disappeared persons is expected to increase, requiring early intervention and national, regional and continental responses.

Migration has also been increasingly securitised and this has pushed people towards irregular and dangerous methods, which has increased the number of ‘missing persons’ on the continent. Some disappear without a trace when crossing borders.

Questionable disappearance data

It is difficult to measure the magnitude of enforced disappearances on the continent due to the lack of official data and significant underreporting. According to the report of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, in 2020, 46 271 cases were reported, only 4 783 (10.3%) of which were from African countries.

The highest numbers of reported cases were in Algeria (3 253), Egypt (308), Burundi (238), Sudan (177), Morocco (153) and Ethiopia (113). Despite the huge number of armed conflicts on the continent, it recorded the fewest number of enforced disappearances.

Families and victims have a right to learn the truth and be able to access justice

Amid the conflict and political turmoil in Sudan, for example, the working group recorded only 394 cases from families and victims in the last four decades. The reasons for underreporting and low records in most African states include refusal to acknowledge enforced disappearances involving the state and the reluctance of victims to report due to fear. Restrictions on the work of civil society and a culture of silence exacerbate the situation.

Although ratification is low, ICPPED provides a foundation for and outlines the legal obligations of states to protect, prevent, prosecute and recompense victims of enforced disappearance. The AU needs to establish legal frameworks that guide its member states in finding appropriate responses to enforced disappearances and encourage states that have not yet ratified ICPPED to do so.

Adapting to new conflict dynamics

The problems of missing persons and enforced disappearances should no longer be tolerated, as these practices continue to evolve unabated through new contexts and dynamics. Given the physical and psychological impact of disappearances, member states’ actions should focus on families and victims, who have a right to learn the truth, access justice and obtain redress.

Member states also have an obligation to investigate cases of disappeared persons, identify and prosecute those responsible and provide reparation to families. The legal, policy and operational factors constraining protection against enforced disappearance need urgent attention.

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