Sunday, September 07, 2008

Remembering the disappeared

Nazi Germany used a tactic notoriously known as Nach und Nebel (Night and Fog) to silence opposition to Adolf Hitler. Without warning, the Nazis swooped down on their opponents, then killed them on the spot or sent them to concentration camps. They would never be heard from again. Approximately six million European Jews were killed in a programme of deliberate extermination planned and executed by the Nazi regime.

More than twenty years later after World War II, General Augusto Pinochet staged a military coup in Chile and would install himself as his country’s dictator for 17 years. Nearly three thousand people were executed, disappeared or died from torture during that military regime. Until now, there is no official record of the thousands of Chileans who were forcibly disappeared, killed or tortured during the 17-year dictatorship.

Between 1976 and 1983, more than 30,000 people were estimated to have been forced to disappear in Argentina under the country’s ruling military junta. Close to 9,000 cases had been verified from military officers who were involved in Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” where many victims were drugged and dumped alive out of airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean, thus leaving no trace of their passing.

Many would also suffer forced disappearances during the Great Purge in the former Soviet Union. In Iraq, tens of thousands of people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein during its Operation Anfal. Similarly, there are also allegations of suspected terrorists captured by the United States military in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that are being sent to undisclosed CIA-run prisons overseas, thus providing speculation why the U.S. government has abstained from signing the United Nations’ ban on forced disappearances.

In the Philippines, those who dared to oppose the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have also been forced to disappear or become victims of extrajudicial killings. Since Arroyo came to power through a popular uprising, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan) has reported 910 victims of extrajudicial killings and 193 victims of enforced disappearances from January 2001 to June 30, 2008. There were also thousands of victims of forced disappearances during the Marcos dictatorship that preceded the Arroyo government by about 17 years; the identities or bodies of these victims continue to remain unaccounted for up to the present.

Despite the report made by Prof. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the Philippine government under Mrs. Arroyo continues to refuse implementing the Alston report. The Alston report has concluded that state security forces have been complicit in the killings of farmers, church activists and organizers, journalists, indigenous peoples, lawyers and others who opposed the Arroyo government. On their part, the Philippine military has blamed the local Communist Party and its army for the said killings or disappearances.

The failure of the Arroyo government to implement the recommendations drawn up by Prof. Alston clearly dishonours the Philippine government’s pledge and commitment to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

A person is said to have been forced to disappear when he or she is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or its agents, who then deny that the person is being held without charges or conceal their whereabouts, thus putting them outside the protection of the law. Most often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown.

But a person who has disappeared has not just vanished. Someone is responsible and knows what has happened. Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law but all too often the perpetrators are never brought to justice.

A range of human rights is violated whenever someone is forced to disappear. Among these rights are:

• the right to security and dignity of person
• the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
• the right to humane conditions of detention
• the right to a legal personality
• the right to a fair trial
• the right to a family life
• when the disappeared person is killed, the right to life

Enforced disappearance results in a violation of the person who has disappeared, and a violation of those who love them.

A person who is forced to disappear is often tortured and in constant fear for their life. At the mercy of his or her captors, the disappeared person is removed from the protection of the law and deprived of all rights. And if the person does not die and is eventually released from captivity, they may continue to suffer for the rest of their life from the physical and emotional trauma of their dehumanization, and from the brutality and torture that usually accompany it.

The families and friends of the disappeared also suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved one. Not knowing if their loved one will ever return, they cannot mourn and adjust to their loss. They wait and hope, sometimes for years, for news that may never come.

We must condemn all enforced disappearances. All governments have the legal obligation and moral responsibility to bring to justice those who commit such crimes under international law.

We must also remember those who have disappeared, whether we knew them by their names or whose identities and bodies still remain engraved in the dark recesses of the minds of their perpetrators. We must honour them in our memory. As one philosopher wrote, those who do not remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.

We remember them so we will not forget the atrocity and brutality that they went through, for that memory will always keep our hope and belief in humanity, so that our vigilance will prevent these crimes from being repeated in the future.

We must not heed the words of General Augusto Pinochet when he said during the anniversary of his military dictatorship:

“It is better to remain quiet and to forget. That is the only thing we must do. We must forget. And that won’t happen if we continue opening up lawsuits, sending people to jail. FOR-GET: That’s the word. And for that to happen, both sides must forget and continue with their work.”

Instead, we must listen to the voices of the families of the disappeared. As one mother of a desaparecido said:

“Memory helps people so that the same crimes are not repeated, calling things by their real name, saying a criminal is a criminal ... The worst that could occur ... is to think that by forgetting we will do away with the problem.”

This is how Concepcion Empeno (Nanay Connie) remembers her daughter Karen who was abducted in Bulacan, a province in Central Philippines, on June 26, 2006. She vividly remembers that whenever she confronted her daughter why she left school to work with poor peasants in Bulacan, Karen would answer her, “Because I love you.”

“What kind of love is that?” Nanay Connie asked Karen once. She never understood what Karen meant until her daughter was abducted.

On the second year anniversary of Karen’s disappearance, Nanay Connie says, “I get my strength from Karen...Now I understand the kind of love she has been giving us; it is the same love that she shares to our poor countrymen.”

At the time she was abducted in Bulacan, Karen was a graduating student from the University of the Philippines where she was studying sociology because she wanted to learn about society. All she lacked was a thesis to complete her studies.

Or how Lorena Santos, whose father, Leo Velasco, a consultant with the National Democratic Front (NDF) in the Philippines, and her mother, Elizabeth Principe, were both abducted in separate incidents in 2007, would cope with her loss and keep the memories of her parents alive. Lorena said that they may have three different surnames in the family but they are still a family. Being a child of a couple wanted by government forces, they had to change their surnames for their personal safety.

Although her mother Elizabeth was resurfaced by the military nine months after her abduction in Quezon City, a neighbouring city of Manila in the Philippines, Lorena continues to talk and connect with the relatives and families of other disappeared persons. Lorena said they just have to continue searching and fighting for justice. “Enforced disappearances would stop only if there would be a change in the societal system,” she said.

“We need to participate, work for genuine change so that the memory of our loved ones would not fade in the history, the process of the people’s struggle,” Lorena added.

So we too must remember, so we will never forget. Every year on August 30, we can join citizens around the world in observing the International Day of the Disappeared to remember those who have disappeared and their families.

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