Enforced Disappearances in Colombia: an ongoing issue.

Colombian activists in London against forced disappearances during protests in Colombia 2019-2021. Photo Sandra Dixon

Despite the signature of the Peace Accord (2016), enforced disappearances continue in Colombia. The Colombian Transitional Justice System has three elements, the Truth Commission, The Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Search Unit for the disappeared. The Truth Commission’s report states that there were over 110 thousand enforced disappearances in Colombia, during the most intense years of the armed conflict people. Six out of ten countries in the world with the highest number of enforced disappearances are in Latin America. Colombia along with Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador, and Chile are among the nations with the highest numbers in the last 40 years.

ABColombia therefore welcomes the decision by the Colombian Government to accept the competence of the United Nations (UN) Committee against Enforced Disappearances. This decision opens a new international scenario for Colombian victims. The UN will now be able to receive and examine complaints, in cases where internal resources are not sufficient to clarify the facts, and in addition they will have the support and advice of the UN helping the investigation to be more effective. Whilst this is a positive move by the Colombian Government, it is not clear at the moment whether the UN Committees competence will be retroactive, or only relevant for new cases.

In Colombia the National Centre for Historical Memory has gathered data collected by different institutions on the victims of enforced disappearance, yet there are still many gaps in the information due to the nature and modus operandi of this crime, which tends to hide the bodies of the victims.

Other issues that make the data collection of the cases of enforced disappearance challenging, include:

1) the confusion of this crime with other forms of violence such as kidnapping and homicide; 2) the difficulty or impossibility of denouncing the facts due to pressure from the armed actors, the participation of State agents in the perpetration of this type of crime and; 3) the fact that disappearance was not classified in Colombia until 2000, when it was passed into law (Law 589/2000) that penalised forced disappearance as a crime.

The Colombian Constitution of 1991 acknowledged forced disappearances, but it was not until 2000, with Law 589, that the country introduce the judicial framework for criminal investigations and the search for the whereabouts of the victims. In some situations, the entire family has been murdered, meaning that there wasn’t any family member to report to the authorities. Some people were threatened, warning them not to report the crime and they did not trust the justice system. 

In its Executive Summary, the Colombian Truth Commission’s report published in June 2022 identified over 110,000 direct victims of enforced disappearances with the main perpetrators being: paramilitaries (52%), FARC-EP (24%), and state agents (8%).

Different institutions have been collecting information and building missing person datasets. The collected data may vary between institutions, this is in part due to the objectives of each. This is a difficult task due to the magnitude of the forced disappearance in the country, and the fact that it is a practice that is still used today. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross registered 571 new cases of people who went missing between the signing of the Peace Agreement and the 31st of December 2020

Who are the victims?

The National Centre of Historical Memory identifies that in addition to the direct victims of forced disappearance, their families are also indirect victims of that crime. The psycho-social impacts and emotional damage of the family of the victims are incalculable because the nature and characteristics of this crime produce a permanent uncertainty that prevents mourning.

Elizabeth Santander, whose husband was disappeared in the 80s in Colombia, was forced to flee the country with her daughter but her search for her late partner has continued from exile.

“Enforced disappearance has multiple violations against multiple human rights, starting from the detention, deprivation of liberty, torture, and possibly murder. In other words, there are many issues. The right of the family to know where they are. When you can’t find a missing person you feel empty. The family have the right to hold a funeral, the right to say goodbye or at least to know that he is somewhere and not to live with the uncertainty of a lifetime, without knowing what happened to him”

According to PBI Colombia, the impact caused by enforced disappearance includes psycho-social effects and a breakdown of the emotional, familiar, and community life of victims and society.

The Official definition

According to the United Nations, an enforced disappearance occurs when: “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”

International day of Forced Disappearances 

In 2006, the 55th United Nations General Assembly approved the discussion to promote the international Convention that protects all people against enforced disappearances. The date first started being observed in 2011 after the UN resolution 65/209 expressed its deep concern about the increase in enforced or involuntary disappearances in various regions of the world, including arrest, detention, and abduction, when these are part of or amount to enforced disappearances, and by the growing number of reports concerning harassment, ill-treatment, and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared.

By the same resolution, the Assembly welcomed the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and decided to declare 30 August the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Decades of internal armed conflict in Colombia have left thousands of missing persons, deaths, and unidentified bodies. This situation forced the Colombian government to establish laws to strengthen institutions and attend victims, and families of the victims of enforced disappearances to identify the deceased and prosecute the perpetrators.

The work carried out by the Colombian Truth Commission has revealed the impact of this practice on society. On the International Day of Forced Disappearances, ABColombia urges the Colombian state, institutions and organisations to remain committed to the victims in their search for the truth putting into action the recommendations made by the Truth Commission the transitional justice mechanisms to prevent disappearances from continuing to occur in the country.