On Aug. 30, the international community will mark the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. This day is an opportunity for people in all parts of the world to reflect and commemorate the missing, to denounce the practice of enforced disappearances, and to advocate for an end to this practice.
Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when an individual is arrested, detained, or otherwise deprived of their liberty by government officials or individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, consent or acquiescence of the government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the person.
For victims and their families, the reality of enforced disappearances is not limited to one day a year, but is always present. This is the case internationally, and on the Korean peninsula.
During the Korean War, thousands of civilians from the South were captured and forcedly removed to the North. While precise numbers are not known, the Korean War Abductees Family Union has compiled records of 96,013 Korean War abductees. There are strong indications that these abductions were organized and targeted persons with particular practical or administrative skills. Abductions continued after the end of the war. While most of those abducted have been returned, 516 citizens of the Republic of Korea abducted after the war are believed to remain in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. North Korea also abducted individuals from other countries, in particular Japan, during the 1970s and 1980s.
The United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992, acknowledges the wider impact of enforced disappearances. When persons disappear without information about their whereabouts and conditions, it has a chilling effect, beyond that individual, to his or her relatives, and community. The declaration emphasizes that victims and their family members have the right to the truth, to justice and to redress and compensation.
At the international level, recent years have seen increased acknowledgement of disappearances as an international crime, and increased resolve to bring an end to this practice. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force in 2010. It provides firm legal recognition of the crime of enforced disappearance, and states that victims have the right to the truth, reparation and compensation. To date, 52 states have ratified the treaty and 51 additional states have signed the convention. Likewise, the International Criminal Court recognizes that enforced disappearances when committed systematically may constitute a crime against humanity.
The Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances established by the United Nations Human Rights Council, seeks to assist families to establish the whereabouts of their relatives who have reportedly disappeared, and carries out other tasks related to enforced disappearances. The working group receives information from relatives and civil society organizations working on their behalf. It communicates directly with relevant governments, asking them to investigate and provide information about cases. These cases remain open until the whereabouts of the reported victim is determined. While a number of cases of enforced disappearance from the Republic of Korea by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have been registered, the majority of cases have not.
In 2014, the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea found reasonable grounds to conclude that the systematic abduction or denied repatriation of persons from other countries constituted a crime against humanity. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, opened to follow up on these findings, is continuing to document and raise awareness about this issue. It does so in close cooperation with relevant governments, civil society actors, and relatives of the disappeared.
The combined voices of victims groups, family members, civil society actors and governments who are speaking out have been crucial drivers in the struggle to find out what happened, to keep the stories of all victims alive, and to honor their memory despite the passage of time. On 30 August, let us recognize these brave and determined efforts. Let us also not forget the thousands of people who reportedly remain disappeared within the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and across the world.
Signe Poulsen is the representative of the U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.