Involuntary Enforced Disappearances

More than a human rights violation against an individual

Enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole.

Enforced disappearance has become a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can nowadays be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents. Of particular concern are:

  • the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance;
  • the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations;
  • and the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearance.

Special attention must also be paid to specific groups of especially vulnerable people, like children and people with disabilities. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished during conflicts or periods of repression in at least 85 countries around the world.


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with between 60,000 and 100,000 people vanishing since the late 1980s.

The mass disappearance of those who surrendered at the end of the country’s armed conflict is a clear indication of the institutionalization of the practice, with the state concealing the fate and whereabouts of the missing.

Sri Lanka has made some progress on this issue when it criminalized enforced disappearances in March 2018. However, the government must do more to support these measures by proactively helping the affected families to uncover the truth about what happened to their relatives and loved ones .

In May 2018, an Amnesty International report called on Sri Lanka’s government to provide information to the families of the disappeared, with detailed lists and information of persons who surrendered to the armed forces in the final phase of the war. 


Victims of enforced disappearance are people who have literally disappeared; from their loved ones and their community. They go missing when state officials (or someone acting with state consent) grabs them from the street or from their homes and then deny it, or refuse to say where they are. Sometimes disappearances may be committed by armed non-state actors, like armed opposition groups. And it is always a crime under international law.

These people are often never released and their fate remains unknown. Victims are frequently tortured and many are killed, or live in constant fear of being killed. They know their families have no idea where they are and that there is little chance anyone is coming to help them. Even if they escape death and are eventually released, the physical and psychological scars stay with them.

The Problem

Tool of terror

Enforced disappearance is frequently used as a strategy to spread terror within society. The feeling of insecurity and fear it generates is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects communities and society as a whole.

A global issue

Once largely used by military dictatorships, disappearances now happen in every region in the world and in a wide range of contexts. They are commonly carried out in internal conflicts, particularly by governments trying to repress political opponents or by armed opposition groups.

Who is at risk?

Human rights defenders, relatives of those already disappeared, key witnesses and lawyers seem to be particular targets.

Agony and danger for families

Family and friends of people who have disappeared experience slow mental anguish. Not knowing whether their son or daughter, mother or father is still alive. Not knowing where he or she is being held, or how they are being treated. Searching for the truth may put the whole family in great danger. Not knowing if their loved one will ever return often leaves their relatives living in limbo.

Men most targeted, women lead the struggle

Globally, the vast majority of victims of enforced disappearance are men. However, it is women who most often lead the struggle to find out what happened in the minutes, days and years since the disappearance – putting themselves at risk of intimidation, persecution and violence.

On top of this, the disappeared person is often the family’s main breadwinner, the only one able to cultivate the crops or run the family business. This is then made even worse by some national laws that don’t let you draw a pension or receive other support without a death certificate.

Arbitrary detention

Many victims of enforced disappearance have been arbitrarily arrested or detained – in other words, arrested or detained without a warrant of arrest.


A disappeared person is also at a high risk of torture since they are placed completely outside the protection of the law. A victim’s lack of access to legal remedies puts them in a terrifying situation of complete defencelessness. Victims of enforced disappearance are also at heightened risk of other human rights violations, such as sexual violence or even murder.

Disappearances Convention

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into effect in 2010. It aims to prevent enforced disappearances, uncover the truth when they do happen and make sure survivors and victims’ families receive justice, truth and reparation.

The Convention is one of strongest human rights treaties ever adopted by the UN. Unlike other crimes under international law, such as torture, enforced disappearances were not prohibited by a universal legally binding instrument before the Convention came into force in 2010.

The Convention provides a definition of the crime of enforced disappearance and outlines necessary state action in order to both prevent the occurrence of the crime and to allow for the investigation and prosecution of those who perpetrate it.

Implementation of the Convention is monitored by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED). At the time of ratifying or acceding to the Convention, or even later, a state may declare that it recognizes the competence of CED to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims or other states parties. The CED also provides authoritative interpretations of the Convention.

Source: Amnesty International