The newest U.N. human rights treaty, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enters into force today. The convention absolutely prohibits the practice of disappearing people, defined as detaining someone “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.” Disappearance has generally been recognized as a human rights abuse since the 1980s, but the new treaty creates a mechanism for monitoring efforts to stop disappearances, as well as an optional individual complaints procedures.
The treaty, which was opened for signature in 2007, enters into force 30 days after its 20th ratification–in this case, it was Iraq that put it over the top. Unfortunately, however, the United States has not signed or ratified the treaty, probably due to fears that it will interfere with anti-terror efforts. (But if Iraq–a country that faces far more terror attacks than does the U.S.–can do it, I wonder why the U.S. should have a problem.) Other countries that ERI has experience with–including Burma and all of the other Mekong countries, Peru, Colombia, and India–are also not parties to the treaty, although Colombia, India, and Laos have signed it but not yet ratified it.
Many human rights treaties start slowly, and eventually gain wide acceptance. The Torture Convention, which also entered into force after 20 ratifications, took about three years to get to that point and is now ratified by 147 countries around the world. The Disappearance Convention itself is the product of nearly 30 years of work, starting with a 1978 General Assembly resolution and followed by a 1992 U.N. declaration. So while the development of human rights law is sometimes slow, the issues that are the subject of non-binding declarations today–such as indigenous peoples’ rights–may eventually be governed by widely-ratified treaties with a mechanism for enforcement.