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Of missing people, forced disappearances

Opinion & Analysis
AUGUST 30 is set aside by the United Nations as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

guest column Miriam T Majome

AUGUST 30 is set aside by the United Nations as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

The day serves to bring to light the global problem. The Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 20, 2006. In 2016, the UN reported 44 159 cases of enforced disappearances in 91 countries.

To unaffected people, the day comes and goes unnoticed annually and is quickly forgotten about just like any other ordinary day.

However, it is remarkable to relatives and friends of people who were forced to disappear, who they never saw or heard of or from again.

They just vanished into thin air or more accurately were made to vanish. Victims of enforced disappearances are people who have permanently disappeared and are never seen again by their families and people who knew them. Typically people go missing at the hands of the State and armed political groups.

Armed criminal gangs also cause many forced disappearances usually in drug wars. Forced disappearances are criminal acts under international law and are a crime against humanity. Targeted people are typically forcibly grabbed from the streets, their workplaces or their homes or anywhere and bundled into unmarked vehicles.

tate officials routinely deny involvement in the disappearances and always refuse to disclose the location of the victims. In some rare instances, some victims are released after days, weeks, months or years in captivity. Very little explanation if at all is ever given about where or why they were held. They just suddenly appear from nowhere.

The most notable example of such an unexplained re-emergence from captivity was Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko, who was abducted from her house by unidentified people in 2008 at the height of the country’s most tense election period.

After her abduction, she was missing for three weeks before she was inexplicably produced for trial by the State. However, not everyone is so lucky. Some Zimbabweans who went missing are Itai Dzamara, Rashiwe Guzha, Patrick Nabayama and Ghandi Mudzingwa, among many others.

The ones with less prominent names are barely remembered and mentioned, yet there are many. Many people in the Matabeleland and Midlands areas disappeared during the post-independence violence and many more disappeared before 1980, during the war for independence.

The most notable disappearance before independence was that of veteran political activist and outspoken lawyer and government critic, Edson Sithole. He mysteriously vanished outside a bar in 1975 and was never seen or heard of again to this day. When people never return after some time they are assumed to be dead, but not always.

Their families keep holding out for their return even after decades. Whatever the case, forced disappearances are a painful deeply disturbing mystery even to people who never even knew them.

Amnesty International says forced disappearances are a political tool of terror and a strategy to spread terror in society. People considered as political threats are the most vulnerable and more prone to abductions.

Political activists, writers, journalists, political opponents, human rights defenders, relatives of those already disappeared, key witnesses and lawyers are common targets. The questions, trauma and fear generated by forced disappearances deeply affect communities and society for many years to come.

The intention by the political establishment or criminal overlords would be to instil blind obedience and assert unquestioned power and dominance over the populace. Forced disappearances were mainly used by military dictatorships, but now they happen everywhere in the world for non-political purposes.

They are more common during periods of heightened political conflicts. Governments are known to try to repress political opponents and scare them into submission through fear of abductions and disappearances.

The UN secretary-general’s message for 2019 to mark the day called on States to do more to prevent forced disappearances and bring to justice those responsible. He urged countries who have not yet signed the Convention to sign, ratify or accede to it. Zimbabwe is still not a State Party to the Convention.

The Convention states that forced 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 organised 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.”

Some of the human rights that forced disappearances violate are:

  •  The right to liberty and security of the person;
  •  The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  •  The right to life, when the disappeared person is killed;
  •  The right to a fair trial and to judicial guarantees;
  •  The right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation;
  •  The right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of a disappearance.

Further to this, the Constitution guarantees absolute rights such as the right to life, section 48, the right to liberty section 49, the rights of those arrested and detained section 50, the right to human dignity section 51 and personal security section 52.

Since 2017, the government has been telling the world that it has turned over a new leaf. However, the most convincing way to prove this is by showing how it has changed. It can start by acceding to the Convention and showing sincerity in solving the forced abductions and disappearance mysteries.

Families of the people who were abducted and disappeared need answers and closure.