New Paper Calls for a Revised Definition of Enforced Disappearance to Address the Growing Number of Disappearances Committed by Non-State Actors

27 September 2021

Our new Working Paper Non-State Actors and Enforced Disappearances: Defining a Path Forward written by our Teaching Assistant Ana Srovin Coralli discusses the growing phenomenon of disappearances committed by non-state actors and the need to rethink the current definition of enforced disappearance to address this reality, improve the situation of victims and ensure proper accountability of non-state actors.

A Rising Phenomenon not Recognized in the Current Definition of Enforced Disappearance

Disappearances committed by non-state actors have intensified throughout the years in all parts of the world. They can take place in the contexts of human trafficking, migration, and armed conflicts and are notably perpetrated by organized crime groups, street gangs or armed groups.

‘While this phenomenon is on the rise, the current international legal framework and definition of enforced disappearance in international human rights law (IHRL) does not allow to properly addressing it’ explains Ana Srovin Coralli.

Impact on the Victims: Lower Protection, Accountability and Redress

As a result, the author underlines that victims of disappearances perpetrated by non-state actors do not benefit from the same guarantees and protection as victims of enforced disappearances perpetrated, authorized, supported or acquiesced by the state.

For instance, under the current legal framework, many victims feel rejected, in particular because they cannot lodge a complaint against a non-state actor or submit a case to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances or the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances given that disappearance of their loved one is considered outside the ambit of the definition.

‘Whenever a disappearance does not qualify as an enforced disappearance – which is the case when perpetrated by non-state actors – the protection and guarantees for the disappeared and their relatives are significantly weaker’ underlines Ana Srovin Coralli.

 Kilinochchi. ICRC program for families of missing person. A woman carefully preserves a handkerchief and the clothes her daughter wore the day before she went missing.

The Need to Expand the Current Definition

 In her paper, the author suggests that expanding the definition of enforced disappearance would allow improving the situation of victims in two ways.

First, state obligations regarding disappearances committed by non-state actors would be equal to their obligations for enforced disappearances. Second, such expansion would also facilitate holding non-state actors accountable for disappearances.

‘It is time to ask ourselves whether the current definition of enforced disappearance is conceptualized in a way that corresponds to reality and addresses the rights of all victims’ says Ana Srovin Coralli.

‘By placing implications for victims at the centre of consideration, the expansion of the definition would contribute to achieving one of the key aims of IHRL, which is to protect human dignity’ she adds.

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