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30 August 2023

Statement: Enforced Disappearances as a Tool of Repression Against Human Rights Defenders

Front Line Defenders marks the International Day of the Disappeared by calling attention to the many cases of forcibly disappeared human rights defenders around the world, denouncing the impunity that characterises these cases, and calling for accountability for those responsible for this grave human rights violation and support for human rights defenders, including relatives of the disappeared, campaigning for truth and justice.

Governments around the world use enforced disappearances as a tool to silence and punish human rights work and peaceful dissent. Human rights defenders, including journalists and those documenting violations by the state, have been targeted by this crime. Those from traditionally persecuted communities, including religious and ethnic minorities, as well as human rights defenders living in highly militarised contexts, have been especially vulnerable to enforced disappearance as reprisal for their work.

Front Line Defenders has documented many cases of enforced disappearances of human rights defenders as reprisals for their work, as well the cases of those working on the issue of enforced disappearances: In Honduras, on 18 July 2020, Garífuna human rights defenders, Suamí Mejía, Sneider Centeno, Milton Martínez Mejía and Gerardo Tróchez were victims of enforced disappearance in the community of Triunfo de la Cruz, Honduras. Their whereabouts remain unknown, and no substantial progress has been made by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in their investigations. These disappearances occur in a context of generalised and systematic threats, attacks and killings against the Garífuna Community as reprisals for the struggle to reclaim their rights to the land, which was grabbed by private companies and the municipality with the acquiescence of the State.

China’s infamous system of residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), which is provided for under its Criminal Procedure Law, grants sweeping powers to the police to detain those suspected of committing a “national security” offence incommunicado for up to six months in any location chosen by the police. UN human rights experts have raised concerns that the conditions of detention under RSDL “are analogous to incommunicado and secret detention and tantamount to enforced disappearance.” Some recent cases include woman human rights defender He Fangmei (何方美), who was disappeared and held for an unknown period of time under RSDL in a psychiatric hospital while pregnant; and human rights lawyer Chang Weiping (常玮平), placed under RSDL at an undisclosed location in Shaanxi province, days after he publicised details of his torture by State agents during a previous ten-day RSDL detention.

Pakistan has a history of using enforced disappearances as a tool to target human rights defenders and silence dissent against the administration and the military on human rights issues. In recent years, Front Line Defenders has observed an escalating number of cases including short-term disappearances where human rights defenders are found in state custody after several hours, days or weeks. Survivors have shared testimonies of inhuman detention conditions and detailed being subjected to horrific mental and physical torture while in captivity. Even where the state admits that human rights defenders are in their custody, many of them face false legal cases, resulting in prolonged detention, imprisonment, and surveillance. The enforced disappearance of human rights defender Idris Khattak, who was found in state custody seven months later, and his subsequent prosecution under the Officials Secrets Act, is emblematic of the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators and the continued suffering of survivors and their families. Despite assurances from successive Pakistani governments, there has been little attempt to criminalise the practice of enforced disappearances, and the country is yet to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

While Russia has been using enforced disappearances against Ukrainian human rights defenders and civil society activists since the beginning of the occupation of Crimea in 2014, this practice has skyrocketed since the launch of its full scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian human rights organisation ZMINA has reported that since February 2022, the Russian military has abducted, forcibly disappeared and unlawfully detained at least 562 volunteers, activists, and human rights defenders, including woman human rights defender Iryna Horobstova and journalists Dmytro Khyliuk and Oleh Baturin. While disappeared, some are subjected to torture and ill-treatment by Russian forces, in some cases to the point of death – ZMINA has documented 16 cases where the person was found dead after being forcibly disappeared. Disappeared human rights defenders are often forced to incriminate themselves in fabricated criminal cases – as in the case of Iryna Danylovych, a woman human rights defender and civic journalist from Crimea.

Front Line Defenders acknowledges the terrible trauma inflicted by enforced disappearance on human rights defenders, as well as their families and wider communities. We also recognise the work of countless human rights defenders in every corner of the world, especially relatives of disappeared people, who continue to work peacefully for truth and justice for their missing loved ones. Human rights defenders are both victims of enforced disappearances, but also work tirelessly to campaign against this practice and its effects on society more broadly.

In May 2022, Mexico reached the grim milestone of 100,000 victims of disappearances, which indicates the severity of the issue in the country. In 2022, Front Line Defenders highlighted the fundamental work done by human rights defenders and collectives looking for the disappeared by presenting its Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk to Javier Barajas and María del Tránsito Piña Salvatierra, from Guanajuato. Their case illustrates the lengths to which relatives of the disappeared will go to find justice and their loved ones, and the dangers they incur by doing so, becoming human rights defenders themselves. When their daughter Guadalupe Barajas Piña, a teacher like them, went missing in 2020, they became buscadores (“searchers”), alongside their son Javier Barajas Piña. In February 2021, Guadalupe's body was identified in a clandestine grave along with 80 other bodies. Lamentably, this human rights work led to Javier Barajas Piña being killed on 29 May 2021 by individuals linked to the disappearance of his sister. On 16 August 2023, the Judicial Power of Guanajuato acquitted the suspects charged with his murder. This ruling is a terrible message of impunity that exposes the human rights defenders Javier Barajas and María del Tránsito and the collectives searching for their disappeared in Guanajuato to further risk.

In Colombia, Yanette Bautista, Director of the Fundación Nydia Erika Bautista (FNEB), has been working for decades on enforced disappearances linked to the armed conflict, after her own sister was disappeared in 1987 by the Armed Forces. FNEB and seven other women’s organisations presented a legislation proposal for the Colombian congress to develop specific protection measures and mechanisms for women human rights defenders dedicating their lives to searching for those disappeared and facing high risks in this struggle. Congress adopted this proposal on 16 August 2023, and the text will now be debated in the Senate.

In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, human rights organisations and relatives of the disappeared have been campaigning tirelessly for truth, accountability and redress despite threats to their own safety. In the absence of credible state mechanisms to ensure release and justice, families have protested peacefully on the streets, and advocated in national and international forums seeking justice.

Front Line Defenders believes that the use of enforced disappearances against human rights defenders across the world is directly related to their human rights work, and strongly condemns this practice and the impunity that perpetrators have enjoyed. National governments should work towards passing and enforcing legislation to ban this practice and other reprisals against human rights defenders working on the broader issue of enforced disappearances. It is also important to fight the impunity associated with enforced disappearances by giving visibility to the cases of forcibly disappeared individuals and human rights defenders working on this issue.