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A Time To Remember The Disappeared – UN Expert

Today is the International Day of the Disappeared. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances commemorates the day every 30 August.

The Working Group that was established by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1980 assists families in determining the fate or whereabouts of disappeared relatives. It also endeavors to establish a channel of communication between the families and the governments concerned, to ensure that individual cases are investigated, with the objectives of clarifying the whereabouts of persons who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law.

From Cape Town, South Africa, Jeremy Sarkin, the chairperson of the Working Group, told VOA that the group has been around for over 30 years although it hasn’t really reached significant recognition yet.

He said it is important “to give some kind of commemoration for the hundreds of thousands of people that have disappeared around the world”.

He said the Working Group has achieved substantial progress. “The Working Group has focused on more than 50 thousand cases and has had quite some success”.

Sarkin added, “Really the organization is a humanitarian one, in a sense; it operates as a conduit between family members and the government”.

He explained that the Working Group doesn’t really go and find people but it acts as a liaison between victim families and governments to ensure that individuals who have gone missing are found.

“Our major target is state-sanctioned or state organized or disappearances caused by organizations with state sanctions. So we really operate within a context of disappearances where there is a connection with the state directly,” he said.

Sarkin pointed out the thousands of cases have been clarified over the last 30 years. “We have seen cases in a whole range of countries where either the person has been found alive, or in prison or elsewhere where governments have taken them. In other cases a person’s body has been found and identified – and where it has been found that the state had a role, reparations have been paid to the family members concerned”.

On secret detentions, especially in terrorism cases, Sarkin said that is still a problem in terms of forced disappearances. But added that “at the moment the UN is investigating the practice of secret detentions and will make recommendations to ensure the practice is reduced and eradicated going forward”.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is comprised of five independent experts from all regions of the world.