Forced disappearance

A forced disappearance occurs when an organization (usually a ruling government, and usually one that is a police state or dictatorship) forces a person to disappear from public view.

The way this is achieved is through murder or assassination. Typically, the murder is surreptitious, and the body disposed where it will (hopefully) never be found. The person simply vanishes. The party committing the murder has deniability, as there is no dead body to show the victim is actually dead.


Linguistic considerations

People who have been forced to disappear are frequently referred to as "disappeared", they've been "disappeared by" whomever, and those responsible are charged with "disappearing" him or her. "Disappear", normally a intransitive verb, becomes transitive in this use. Some people uncomfortable with this term prefer to say that someone "was made to disappear". Both phrases are usually considered doublespeak euphemisms.

Well known incidents

The method first was often used in the Soviet Union during the Great Purge. When someone was purged, secret police (in this case the GPU or OGPU of the NKVD) would take them away to either a police building or a remote location to be killed, usually in the night. For important people the following may have happened: artists would airbrush them out of photographs; books, records, and histories would be recalled, rewritten, or redacted; pictures, busts, and statues would be taken down; people would be discouraged from talking about them; and the government would never mention them again. It was as if they never existed. Some victims were sent to Gulags as forced labor, which would make them forced laborers and not murder victims.

During World War II, Nazi Germany set up secret police forces including branches of the Gestapo in occupied countries, which they used to hunt down known or suspected dissidents or partisans. This tactic was given the name Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) to describe those who disappeared after being arrested by Nazi forces without any warning. The Nazis also applied this policy against political opponents within Germany. Most victims were killed on the spot or left to die in concentration camps.

During Argentina's Dirty War, political dissidents were forced to jump out of airplanes far out over the Atlantic Ocean. Obviously, their bodies were never found. Without any dead bodies, the government could deny they had been killed. People murdered in this way (and in others) are today referred to as "the disappeared" (los desaparecidos). A group called "Mothers of the Disappeared" were the inspiration for a U2 song of the same name.

In The Troubles of Northern Ireland dozens of people on all sides were disappeared, the most infamous case being that of mother of ten, Jean McConville, who was abducted, tortured and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1972. She was wrongly accused of being an informer. Her body was only discovered by accident in 2004.

In what is probably the best known non-governmental case, the mafia is said to have "disappeared" U.S. trade-unionist Jimmy Hoffa, killing him and doing away with his body in a way that ensured it was never found.

Disappearances in human rights law

In international human rights law, disappearances at the hand of the state have been codified as enforced or forced disappearances. For example, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court defines enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity, and the practice is specifically addressed by the OAS's Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.

Disappearances work on two levels: not only do they effectively silence those opposition members who have disappeared, they also sow uncertainty and terror in the wider community in general, thus silencing other opposition voices, current and potential alike. Disappearances entail the violation of a series of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. For the disappeared person, these include the right to liberty, the right to personal security and humane treatment (including freedom from torture), the right to a fair trial, to legal counsel, and to equal protection under the law, the right of presumption of innocence, et cetera. Their families, who often spend the rest of their lives in fruitless searches for the disappeared persons remains and for emotional closure, also become victims of the disappearance's effects.

See also

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