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Stopping Enforced Disappearances Should be a U.S. Priority

On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, we urge the Biden administration to do more to end this pattern of human rights violations.
A group of people standing in boxes above "International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances"

By UUSC Staff on August 29, 2022

Imagine being kidnapped from your home at gunpoint, tortured, caged, and transported to an unknown location where your friends and loved ones can’t find you. Or suppose you saw agents of the state take your family members into custody, and when you tried to follow up to find out what had happened to them, you were denied all information. Around the world, this nightmare happens to thousands of people each year. By being torn from their community without contact or legal process, these individuals have been the victims of “enforced disappearance.”

The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance—commemorated every August 30—calls attention to the plight of people who have experienced this grave human rights violation. It also offers a moment to hold governments accountable for their complicity in enforced disappearances, and to urge them to do more to stop the practice globally. As a human rights organization based in the United States, we join the global call for action by urging the Biden administration specifically to step up their efforts to combat enforced disappearance. 

The majority of enforced disappearances in recent history have been committed by state actors, and our own government could do more to oppose them. Around the world, tyrannical governments and autocratic leaders rely on the practice of “disappearing” critics of the regime in order to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. In Burma, the military junta that seized power in February 2021 routinely uses enforced disappearance to terrorize and impede the country’s movement to restore democracy. The U.S. government speaks out against the Burmese military’s atrocities; yet our government is not among the 98 nations that have taken the obvious step of joining the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance to try to stop this practice.

The U.S. government has also been guilty of committing enforced disappearances itself in the recent past. When the Trump administration imposed the family separation policy on asylum-seeking families in 2018, parents were routinely denied information about the whereabouts of their children. This kidnapping of family members and denial of contact or information about their circumstances constitute temporary enforced disappearance, in the eyes of human rights observers. And while the U.S. government subsequently called a halt to the practice, many families affected by it remain separated to this day; there has been no accountability for U.S. officials responsible for the practice; and minor children are still separated involuntarily under some circumstances from adult caregivers at the border. 

Even when a government is not directly perpetrating enforced disappearances itself, moreover, it may still be guilty of abetting the practice. Many enforced disappearances in the present day are carried out by organized criminal networks seeking to extort resources. In Mexico, a staggering 100,000 people have disappeared since 1964, many of them people in migration who have been targeted by organized crime due to the vulnerability of their circumstances. The U.S. government, despite admitting in numerous public statements the dangers that migrating people face if delivered into these conditions, continues to expel asylum-seekers to Mexico, Haiti, and other countries where criminal networks routinely prey on recently-deported migrants. When governments knowingly return people to conditions where they will likely face enforced disappearance, they become complicit in the practice.

The U.S. government claims to be a leader in promoting human rights around the world. Yet they continue to enable enforced disappearances through their actions and fail to take the necessary and obvious steps in their power to arrest this practice worldwide. They should begin by adding the United States’ name to the international compact seeking to protect all people from enforced disappearance. They must also halt all expulsions of asylum-seekers under the Title 42 policy, and end any other anti-immigrant policies that enable enforced disappearance abroad. Finally, they must ensure justice for the families—including minor children—who suffered enforced disappearance at our own government’s hands just a few short years ago. 

As another August 30 arrives, we urge the Biden administration to take stronger action to halt the disappearance of activists, human rights defenders, asylum-seekers, and other people fighting for their dignity and a better life. Honoring the victims of enforced disappearance on one day out of the year is not enough. To truly commemorate their legacy and ensure justice for the wrong they endured, we must work to ensure that no one else is ever subject to the same violation again. 

Image Credit—iStock: ICexpert

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