Cruelty of Unending Grief: International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances | The Center for Victims of Torture

Cruelty of Unending Grief: International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

Cruelty of Unending Grief: International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

I met Salah in Amman, where he was a client in CVT’s program of rehabilitative care for survivors of torture. Salah was raised in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq, and he spoke to me about what it means to have family members disappeared. He described the psychological anguish that he, his brother and his father suffered in 2007 as they went to a hospital to look through corpses for a sign of his disappeared uncle, whom they did not find. Since that time, Salah’s brother disappeared after being snatched up by militia members from his home in 2015; in an effort to retrieve his son, Salah’s father left home a day or two later, never to be heard from again. 

The breach of the prohibition against enforced disappearance, unique in international law, is an ongoing violation against both the disappeared person and his or her family. As long as the truth about the individual’s fate or whereabouts remains unknown, the violation continues. People from Iraq often seek the Center for Victims of Torture’s mental health services in Jordan to cope with the disappearance of their loved ones in their home country, where individuals disappear from their homes or marketplaces, seemingly as a matter of routine.

Because of the chaotic situation and lack of government control in many regions of Iraq, these family members may be considered victims of torture under international law and have the right to seek redress and the truth, a right enshrined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED).   

The CED, largely as a result of the efforts of family members of individuals disappeared under Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, passed in 2010 and on August 30 became the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The Convention defines an enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction” or other deprivation of liberty by a state actor or with state acquiescence, “followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person[.]” The concealment of the victim’s whereabouts victimizes both the individual and those seeking such acknowledgement.

Time and again, the UN Human Rights Committee and other international mechanisms have found that family members, like Salah, who have not been able to find the truth about the fate and whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones, have suffered harmful psychological damage, often in breach of prohibitions against cruelty and torture.

Indeed the psychological suffering associated with disappearance, a type of ambiguous loss, is an immense burden on the family members. Ambiguous loss differs from ordinary loss because it lacks closure or clarity without understanding of what happened or whether a loved one is actually gone.  As a result, many question whether they should grieve the loss of a loved one or continue to hold out hope. Often, community pressures to either wait or move on confound these conflicted emotions. Clinicians at CVT’s healing center in Jordan provide unique healing exercises for individuals suffering from ambiguous loss.

International law must, too, grapple with the unique suffering of the family members of the disappeared. Under the CED, a State Party to the Convention, like Iraq, must “take appropriate measures to investigate” acts of disappearance “committed by persons or groups of persons acting without the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State and bring those responsible to justice.” In other words, even if non-state actors perpetrate the crime, the state is under an obligation to investigate and provide the truth. Iraq has consistently failed to carry out this obligation.

In a country, like Iraq, where militias operate with impunity, the government is often powerless or unwilling to hold the militias that perpetrate such disappearances to account or even investigate the disappearances. When asked why he didn’t trust the local Iraqi police to investigate the disappearances of his family, Salah explained:

“A police officer came to my father and said that ‘you look like a nice man, so I want to advise you. If you value your life, leave this lawsuit. And the lawsuit you submitted about your [missing] brother, you should withdraw it. If you continue on with it, you will end up dead.’”

This, Salah said, was not a threat, but a comment on the powerlessness of the local government to rein in the militias in Diyala.

Salah’s story is unique in Iraq only in that so many of his family members have disappeared.  Iraqis—from Mosul to Baghdad, to Basra—have had family members who have gone missing without explanation or investigation. And, like Salah, many have lost faith in the local authorities who were either powerless to investigate or were colluding with—or even controlled by—the perpetrating militias.

The involvement of state and non-state actors in such disappearances is not only a gross violation of human rights, but a crime under international law. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which Iraq acceded to but later withdrew accession, specifically criminalizes enforced disappearances by both states and political organizations as a crime against humanity.                                                                                                                          

Though Iraqi perpetrators of disappearance may not be criminally liable under the Rome Statute, the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances is an important time to recall that there are other means of holding perpetrators to account. 

Where U.S. military aid is provided to Iraqi units carrying out gross violations of human rights, including enforced disappearances, such aid must be cut until ”effective” or “necessary corrective” steps  towards justice have been carried out. As Iraq is a recipient of high levels of U.S. and international military aid, thorough vetting and scrutiny of whether such aid is used in furtherance of gross human rights violations is required, particularly as many victims describe the acquiescence and collusion of Iraqi police and security forces. Furthermore, as a State Pary to the CED, Iraq is obligated to carry out investigations in partial fulfillment of the victims’ right to truth, enshrined in the Convention. Thus far, this obligation remains grossly unfulfilled.

For more on the issue of enforced disappearances, read a CVT clinician perspective on ambiguous loss here and our policy recommendations in the 2015 Reclaiming Hope report here

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