What are Disappearances?
Disappearances are a special form of violence by the state against the people. A disappearance occurs when a person is arrested or detained without that detention being admitted by the state authorities, and without any information being given to the family or friends of the missing person. One of the huge horrors for the family of the disappeared is, not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones, or even whether they are alive or dead.
Disappearances are state terrorism. The victim is usually tortured and killed. Sometimes their dead body is left to be found, more usually the body is hidden or destroyed. Only rarely does the victim return alive. The terror is targeted at opponents of state policy. Each disappeared victim is a warning to others in the political and social movements not to speak out. In this way the terror spreads.
Disappearances can only happen as the result of a conscious policy of the state, and if they are sanctioned at the very highest levels of the government and the military. In those countries that carry out disappearances there are Special Forces to carry out the operations, there are secret places of detention, methods of torture and disposal have been selected, and official representatives use various techniques of denial and counter-information. All these things require resources and co-ordination within the state apparatus. Disappearances are one of the many forms of state violation of human rights. States that carry out disappearances invariably do so as part of a wider counter-insurgency strategy. The context is an overt or covert ‘dirty war’ including the banning of organisations, detention of political prisoners, systematic torture, absence of fair trial, assassinations and massacres.
Why do Disappearances Occur?
Disappearances occur in countries where there is profound social injustice, where insecurity is the norm for the majority of the population. Inequality and injustice bring forth popular resistance movements The dominant minority directs its state apparatus in undemocratic and extra-legal operations against the people.
States that carry out disappearances do not operate alone; they have powerful allies that protect them in the international arena. In Latin America, the continent that gave birth to disappearances in modern times, the policy was initiated and has been widely supported by the United States. Under the twin guise of anti-communism and anti-terrorism from Vietnam to the Philippines, from Guatemala to Chile, the US instigated the disappearances policy.
All the states carrying out disappearances have escaped justice because there is no adequate provision in the international legal system to bring them to trial. This legal system is itself shaped in the interests of the US and other world powers. The powerful and rich nations of the world actively support regimes carrying out disappearances. As well as giving diplomatic and political protection to the perpetrators of disappearances, the rich nations supply the weapons and military training and, if their interests demand it, they intervene directly.
Most of the state regimes carrying out disappearances are closely linked with international capital such as arms suppliers, banks demanding loan repayments, agri-business, manufacturers using cheap labour, or multinationals that exploit oil and other natural resources. The dirty wars are bolstered by dirty deals, deals that channel the world’s wealth and the fruits of its labours into the hands of big business.