Asma Al-Haidari, an Amman-based Iraqi human rights analyst and advocate, says the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Iraq touches the whole population, irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or religious belief.
The number of missing persons in Iraq ranges from 250,000 to over one million, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
The length of time over which enforced disappearances have occurred in Iraq, starting with the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), render this issue particularly complex, according to International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson for Iraq Layal Houraniyeh. The issue of enforced disappearances in Iraq represents, according to IMCP, “a major long-term challenge”.
Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defines enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”
The Convention entered into force on 23 December 2010, 30 days after Iraq became the 20th state to ratify it on 23 November. It provides that “no one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance” and that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.” According to the UN Human Rights Council, “secret detention amounts to an enforced disappearance.”
“No safe place”
Focusing on enforced disappearance in Iraq since 2003, Dirk Adriansens, an expert on Iraq and member of international anti-war group the Brussels Tribunal, gave a presentation at a 9-12 December conference in London organized by the International Committee Against Disappearance (ICAD). Citing 2009 surveys by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), he said 20 percent of internally displaced and 5 percent of returnee families reported cases of missing children.
Further, UNHCR published findings in 2009 showing that “many communities reported missing family members - 30 percent of IDPs, 30 percent of IDP returnees, 27 percent of refugee returnees - indicating that they were missing because of kidnappings, abductions and detentions and that they do not know what happened to their missing family members,” he said.
Adriansens added in his presentation: “A rough estimate would therefore bring the number of missing persons among the refugee population and the internally displaced after ‘Shock and Awe’ [2003 US-led military operation to invade Iraq] to 260,000, most of them enforced disappearances.”
Adriansens went on to say that by extrapolating UNHCR figures to cover the Iraqi population which had not suffered displacement, the total number of missing persons since 2003 “could be more than half a million”.
Jordan-based analyst Al-Haidari believes this number is higher, placing it in the range of 800,000 to one million. “There is no safe place in Iraq. People can be disappeared and sent to secret, illegal detention centres anywhere in the country, without the knowledge of the family or the person’s lawyer,” Al-Haidari said. “Many are assassinated and buried in secret. Many others are charged with trumped-up terrorism charges.”
Amnesty International report
A recent Amnesty International report said “an estimated 30,000 untried detainees are currently being held by the Iraqi authorities, although the exact number is not known as the authorities do not disclose such information.” In addition, there are detainees held at secret facilities, at which torture is common, it said.
A further 23,000 previously held without charge or trial by US forces are currently being transferred to the Iraqi authorities or released, though Amnesty International believes “[a state cannot] claim to be treating detainees humanely while knowingly handing them over to torturers, any more than it can knowingly `release’ detainees in a minefield and claim that their safety is no longer its responsibility.”