World News Digest September

A Sri Lanka Buddhist monk places flowers at a monument during a commemoration of disappeared people at Raddoluwa, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena

A Sri Lanka Buddhist monk places flowers at a monument during a commemoration of disappeared people at Raddoluwa, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena

 

ICMP’s Daily World News Digest brings together news stories dealing with enforced disappearances and missing persons cases from around the world. It offers a snapshot of daily events and over a longer period it highlights key trends.

The prospect of a credible process to address war crimes and investigate missing persons cases in Sri Lanka opened up in September as the government of President Maithripala Sirisena appeared to indicated willingness to launch a comprehensive judicial initiative with international assistance.

The Sunday Leader (http://bit.ly/1EJ2oCV), a weekly from Sri Lanka, reported that a new report on enforced disappearances compiled by the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) had been presented to foreign envoys based in Colombo on 4 September. CHRD Chair Dr. Maheshan Ganesan highlighted the need for a credible mechanism to investigate disappearances and rebuild trust with families of the disappeared. The Malaysian Insider carried a story (http://bit.ly/1FrrocH) on 6 September saying that activists in Sri Lanka are urging the government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and to investigate thousands of unsolved cases. Catholic Church officials noted that Sri Lanka has the second-highest number of disappearances in the world.  The Daily News from Sri Lanka reported on 14 September (http://bit.ly/1i9dQgK) that, to coincide with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva, the government would send to Parliament the report of the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons, which was presented to President Sirisena at the end of August, and would publish the report of a commission investigating the killings of 17 NGO workers in 2009. The following day the Daily News reported (http://bit.ly/1ObfmMT) that the government will set up “independent, credible and empowered mechanisms for truth seeking, justice, reparations and guarantees of non recurrence”, according to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, speaking at the Human Rights Council. He said the government will set up a Commission for Truth, an Office on Missing Persons, and an Office for Reparations and that the Right to Justice will be established as a basic judicial mechanism. On 16 September The Asian Tribune (http://bit.ly/1OdQl3C) reported that two councilors from northern Sri Lanka had presented a memorandum to the UN Office in Jaffna, the Consul General of India and the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council calling on the Human Rights Council to ensure that that judicial investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka is international and under UN control. They said that Tamils in Sri Lanka want the UN to recommend referral of cases to the International Criminal Court or to an international special criminal tribunal for Sri Lanka. The same day the UN News Center carried a story (http://bit.ly/1KqEQDj) saying that a report released by the UN Human Rights Office had identified patterns of grave violations in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2011, and recommended the establishment of a hybrid special court. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that the investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes. He said the new political context in Sri Lanka offered grounds for hope and that the establishment of a hybrid special court is now essential. On 18 September ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger welcomed (http://bit.ly/1MuCAND) the Sri Lankan government’s announcement that it would establish “independent, credible and empowered mechanisms for truth seeking, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence”. “There is now an important opportunity for all stakeholders in Sri Lanka, together with constructive assistance from international partners, to address the issue of those who went  missing during the conflict,” Ms. Bomberger said. On 21 September the ColomboPage news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1YtwctK) that a group of prominent foreign policy observers in Sri Lanka had asked President Sirisena to table all the reports on the final phase of the conflict before the UN Human Rights Council session, since they believed that the mechanisms proposed in the OHCHR report did not reflect “the rigorous legal and military analysis” conducted by Sri Lanka’s Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons. The LankaWeb news portal reported on 22 September (http://bit.ly/1MHe63N) that the chair of the Presidential Commission had said that the death toll in the final phase of the war was not 40,000, as claimed in the 2011 UN report, but probably a little above 7,000.

Federal News Radio in Germany reported on 22 September (http://bit.ly/1KMg9RX) that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, following talks with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Samaraweera in Colombo, had indicated that Germany is ready to help Sri Lanka investigate war crimes and missing persons cases. Samaraweera had said in Geneva that Sri Lanka wants to conduct its own investigation but would accept some outside technical support. Steinmeier said he believes “there will have to be international assistance,” but the extent should be deliberated at the UN Human Rights Council. Samaraweera said Sri Lanka has “indicated to the UN and other international partners that we always welcome international assistance.” He said the government will first hold consultations with political parties and civil society. Human Rights Watch published a commentary on 23 September (http://bit.ly/1Kwv5lJ) on the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka, noting that it provides some hope, but adds that, despite President Sirisena’s “cautiously receptive” reaction, the Sri Lankan delegation at the Human Rights Council “proposed amendment after amendment” to the draft resolution on the report, “seeking to strip away all references to implement the report’s recommendations, including international participation in a justice mechanism and ending impunity.” The Lankaweb news portal reported on 28 September (http://bit.ly/1MBOXok) that Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had described the key features of the domestic mechanism to be implemented following the UNHRC resolution about Sri Lanka on 30 September, comprising the Missing Persons Office, the Special Counsel’s Office and the Truth Commission. The Missing Persons Office will be a permanent institution dealing with relevant complaints. The Special Counsel’s office will decide on the investigations and the cases that should go directly to the judiciary or to the Truth Commission. Foreign prosecutors may join according to the situation that would arise from time to time, the report said.

 Geneva

Meetings of relevant UN bodies in Geneva in September addressed human rights and missing persons issues from around the world. The Kuwait News Agency reported (http://bit.ly/1M7ASPh) that on 14 September the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) had called on governments to broaden guidelines and procedures against arbitrary detention. In its annual report submitted to the Human Rights Council, the Working Group stressed the importance of reducing lengthy curfews and preventing the detention of immigrants and refugees. The WGAD report said it had studied 422 cases of enforced disappearances during 2014 in 30 countries. In addition, the group called on 48 different governments to address 435 cases of sudden disappearances.  The Jurist, a legal news portal, reported (http://bit.ly/1Ktu23N) that on 18 September the WGAD urged countries to increase efforts to search for disappeared persons. Committee Chair Ariel Dulitzky, addressing the Human Rights Council, stated, “One person is probably being disappeared in one of your countries as we are talking.” Dulitzky said that in many countries, governments have more information on the number of mobile phones than on the number of disappeared persons. Human Rights Watch reported on 21 September (http://bit.ly/1L1gKB9) that in spite of a clear mandate to prevent human rights violations, the Human Rights Council has demonstrated a lack of efficiency and it warned that the human rights situation is deteriorating in Russia, Egypt, China, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and especially Bangladesh, where “disappearances and arbitrary arrests of opposition party members, closing down critical media, and arresting and charging editors and bloggers, journalists and civil society members have become more common since the January 2014 period”.

Bangladesh

The Financial Express, a daily from Bangladesh, reported on 7 September (http://bit.ly/1g63AnU) allegations by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that killing and enforced disappearances perpetrated by the security forces have resumed. A BNP spokesperson called for a judicial inquiry into six missing party activists after they were picked up from different parts of the country reportedly by police. Scoop, a news portal from New Zealand, reported on 23 September (http://bit.ly/1WhKs6X) that the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) had called the attention of the Human Rights Council to ongoing enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and the impunity and repression associated with these crimes. Between January 2009 and August 2015, human rights groups documented at least 212 people forcibly disappeared in the country. The pattern of abductions and the profiles of victims suggest that disappearances are used by the government to silence political opponents, the organizations said.

 Syria

The Kuwait News Agency reported on 31 August (http://bit.ly/1Vt2Rxdm) a call by Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders for the immediate release of the “Douma Four”, a group of Syrian human rights defenders who were active since the start of the peaceful uprising against the regime in 2011. Koenders said that “there is a chilling silence surrounding the mass murders and other crimes committed by the Assad regime“, in a statement to mark the International Day of the Disappeared.  Through the Violations Documentation Center NGO the “Douma Four” worked to record human rights violations committed against Syrian citizens, until February 2014, when they were abducted from their offices in Douma by armed men. Since then, nothing has been heard of them. Koenders said the situation in Syria warrants investigation by the International Criminal Court and added that the UN Commission of Inquiry should be given access to the country. On 3 September the UN News Center carried a statement (http://bit.ly/1LYeVEU) by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria in which he said that civilians are suffering the unimaginable, as the world stands witness. In its report, the Commission, which was established in 2011 by the Human Rights Council, expresses concern that warring sides continue to target civilians. It said men are the primary civilian victims of enforced disappearance, torture and unlawful killing. The International Federation for Human Rights called on 21 September (http://bit.ly/1itxOD4) for the Human Rights Council to step up its action towards the release of the detained and disappeared in Syria.

Thailand

Thai Visa News carried a story (http://bit.ly/1NW2lW9) on 1 September noting that civic groups and rights defenders had marked the International Day of the Disappeared by calling on the authorities to reopen cases. In Thailand, labor-union leader Thanong Pho-an went missing under the military government in 1991. A year later at least 31 people disappeared during a protest against the junta. Such disappearances continued in the following years, according to rights groups. Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012 but has yet to ratify the Convention.  Human Rights Watch issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1KIfgeZ) on 10 September saying that Thailand’s junta should immediately disclose the whereabouts of a former government minister whom the military detained on 9 September 2015. Pichai Naripthaphan, who was energy minister from 2011 to 2012, is being held in incommunicado detention. On 10 September, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told the media that Pichai was detained because of his expression of opinions that challenge the authorities and that it is his decision whether harsh of soft measures will be used against him. Col. Winthai Suwaree, spokesperson for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said that Pichai was in military custody, but refused to provide any information regarding his whereabouts or status. Since the 22 May 2014 coup, the NCPO has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists, and people accused of supporting the deposed government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in alleged anti-coup activities, HRW said. On 15 September HRW called on the authorities (http://bit.ly/1irKYRr) to release Pravit Rojanaphruk, a well-known reporter for The Nation newspaper, who has been detained incommunicado since 13 September 2015 for criticizing military rule. On 16 September Human Rights Watch issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1JbgXKx) calling on the Thai authorities to release 64 asylum seekers detained in a recent raid who were being held in immigration detention. The asylum seekers – including seven children – are from Pakistan and Somalia, and possess “person of concern” documents issued by the United Nations refugee agency.

 Iraq

The Kuwait News Agency reported (http://bit.ly/1NYHjqQ ) on 7 September that representatives of Iraq have assured the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances of the country’s commitment to protect human rights through continued cooperation with the UN. Iraq said it has set up bodies in all national institutions in charge of monitoring cases of enforced disappearances as well as human rights issues. On 21 September the Middle East Eye news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1Krhtbq) a call by Human Rights watch for the Iraqi government to assert control over paramilitary forces that have carried out abuses including enforced disappearances.

Mediterranean Migration

Meanwhile, in September the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 topped half a million, more than double the number for the whole for 2014. This mass migration has resulted in thousands of migrants going missing and thousands confirmed dead.

On 2 September the BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1ihnyhd) that the EU’s border control agency, Frontex, had announced that 23,000 migrants had arrived in Greece in the previous week – an increase of 50 percent on the week before that. It said more than 160,000 people had arrived in Greece since the beginning of 2015. Also on 2 September ABC News reported (http://abcn.ws/1iiLQaH) that at least 12 migrants, including five children, had drowned off the Turkish coast on Wednesday when two boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized. CNN reported (http://cnn.it/1IIEKBv) on the same day that a “tiny step” in dealing with Europe’s migrant crisis had been attempted on 2 September as Italy, Germany and France sought a united response to the worsening plight of millions of refugees. Foreign ministers Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Laurent Fabius of France presented the European Union with a joint document calling for a revision of asylum rules and a fairer distribution of refugees. The BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1JSGKbb) on 4 September that the UK will provide resettlement to “thousands” more Syrian refugees in response to the worsening humanitarian crisis. US News carried a story (http://bit.ly/1NbScnE) on 6 September saying that at least 364,000 people had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year. More than 2,800 had died, or were lost and presumed dead, according to the International Organization for Migration. Only about a third of the bodies recovered are ever identified, said Frank Laczko, head of the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Center in Berlin. The Telegraph reported (http://bit.ly/1JZ7JBW) the same day that the UN refugee agency was calling for an emergency evacuation of the thousands of refugees trapped on the Greek island of Lesbos. More than 17,000 refugees were living rough in and around the island’s main port of Mytilini, waiting for the Greek authorities to issue them with travel permits that would allow them to board ferries to Athens and from there journey through the Balkans to northern Europe.

On 8 September the BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1QkH6ga) that hundreds of migrants had broken through police lines on Hungary’s border with Serbia and were walking towards Budapest.

IOM issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1VKKd47) on 9 September saying that its Missing Migrants Project had recorded 58 new fatalities at sea since noon on Friday, 4 September. On the same day, the Daily Telegraph reported (http://bit.ly/1Q1QSmC) that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had unveiled a plan that would see 160,000 refugees redistributed under a compulsory scheme from Italy, Greece and Hungary to all other member states (excluding Britain, Ireland and Denmark, who are exempt under EU treaties). The BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1FzXYZU) on 10 September that US President Barack Obama had called for the US to prepare to accept “at least” 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.

Al Jazeera reported (http://bit.ly/1Y0aKMKon 13 September that at least 28 refugees, half of them children, had drowned after a wooden fishing boat sank off the Greek Island of Farmakonisi. This came just a day after two other boats capsized and at least five people — four children and a 20-year-old man — were presumed drowned.

The BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1QBMyeS) on 15 September that Hungary had enacted new migrant laws to “start a new era” in preventing the inflow of illegal immigrants. Police can now detain anyone who tries to breach a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia. On 14 September, EU ministers failed to agree unanimously on mandatory quotas to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers.

On 20 September the BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1PfZ4PW) that at least 13 migrants, including children, had died after their dinghy and a ferry collided off Turkey, close to the port of Canakkale. The boat was on its way to the Greek island of Lesbos. On 27 September the BBC reported (http://bbc.in/1LVFXaO) that 17 migrants attempting to reach Greece by boat from Turkey had drowned. The victims, all thought to be Syrians, included five women and five children, local media said.

Southeast Asia Migration

Southeast Asia experienced a huge migrant crisis in May after boats carrying thousands of people from Myanmar and Bangladesh were left at sea following a Thai crackdown on people-smuggling gangs. CBC News reported on 7 September (http://bit.ly/1NYozaY) that at least 61 bodies had been recovered after an overloaded wooden boat carrying dozens of Indonesian illegal migrants sank off Malaysia. The dead were mostly men, with one toddler on board, according to officials. Only 20 people were believed to have survived the accident, which happened on 3 September. Most of Malaysia’s estimated six million legal and illegal migrant workers are from Indonesia, working on construction sites, plantations, in factories and in domestic service. In June 2014 two overloaded boats carrying Indonesian migrants capsized in the same area, killing at least 15 people. A number of mass graves have been discovered in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia in camps where migrants were being held by traffickers.

Mexico

The first anniversary of the abduction of 43 student teachers from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero was on 26 September. The case has shone a spotlight on the pandemic of missing persons cases and enforced disappearances in Mexico.

Fox News Latino reported (http://bit.ly/1Fk34cO) on 2 September that at least 31,000 fragments of human bones have been found at a ranch in Nuevo Leon, a state in northern Mexico. The ranch is believed to have been used by drug traffickers to burn the remains of victims, according to state officials. The remains belong to at least 31 people. About 1,100 people have gone missing in the state of Nuevo Leon since 2007, according to official figures, while NGOs say 1,600 people have disappeared in the border state since that year.  On 6 September Human Rights Watch issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1i61Ehb) saying the Attorney General’s Office should promptly investigate claims of abuse and obstruction of justice made by an international group of experts that evaluated the government inquiry into the disappearances of the 43 students. An international expert group appointed by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IAHCR) has published a report refuting the official account of the fate of the students. The UN News Center reported (http://bit.ly/1McdzXs) on 9 September that UN human rights experts have welcomed the IAHCR report and have called for prompt and diligent implementation of its recommendations, including a reassessment of the search for the students, and investigation of allegations of torture, mistreatment and obstruction.  The BBC carried a story (http://bbc.in/1Qzu0M7) on 14 September on the thousands of women and girls who disappear in Mexico State – the administrative region around the capital, Mexico City. A staggering 1,238 women and girls were reported missing in the state in 2011 and 2012 according to the most recent figures. Of these, 53 percent were girls under the age of 17. At least 2,228 women were murdered in the state in the past decade.  Newser, a US news portal, carried a story (http://bit.ly/1OfVbNQ) on 16 September about 17 people who vanished from Cocula in Mexico on 1 July 2013 — more than a year before the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. That event gave hundreds of other families who had loved ones vanish the courage to come forward, many for the first time, to report the crimes. In recent months, the Associated Press interviewed the family members of 158 of those “other disappeared” who came to report their cases, provide DNA samples and go into the surrounding mountains with machetes and steel rods to look for hidden graves. The families have found 60 graves and, with the help of federal authorities, recovered the remains of 104 people. Six of those have been identified and returned to their families. The Telesur news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1NGuRwk) on 17 September that lawmakers from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico rejected a proposal to declare 26 September as the “Day of Condemnation of Forced Disappearances” and instead proposed that the date is commemorated as the “Day of the Victims of Ayotzinapa.” On 18 September The Jurist, a legal news portal, reported (http://bit.ly/1iHYz7v) that Mexican authorities had captured a high-ranking drug cartel member, Gildardo Lopez Astudillo, alleging that he is connected to the disappearance of the 43 students. One of the first major breakthroughs in the case occurred in mid-November when Jose Luis Abarca, a former Mayor of Iguala, was charged with homicide in the case. On 23 September Amnesty International issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1iLya8N) saying that the Mexican authorities’ “reckless handling” of the investigation into the case exposes “a scandalous cover-up orchestrated by the highest levels of government”. “Unless President Peña Nieto takes real action now he will continue to be seen around the world as an enabler of horrors,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. AFP reported (http://yhoo.it/1Ly8BTG) on 24 September that parents of the 43 students had begun a 43-hour hunger strike a day before meeting with President Pena Nieto. On 25 September Deutsche Welle reported (http://bit.ly/1KTGnSH) that the President had announced the creation of a new prosecutor’s office to look into thousands of missing persons cases. His announcement came after a meeting with the families of the 43 students.

Zimbabwe

Voice of America reported (http://bit.ly/1ieSVZW) that a group called Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights on 31 August led Zimbabweans in marking the International Day of the Disappeared, along with victims of torture and NGOs calling on President Robert Mugabe to protect Zimbabweans and guarantee the safety of persons as required by UN statutes. They noted that Zimbabwe was marking the day while Itai Dzamara, a journalist turned activist who disappeared in March, is still missing. Over the last decade, opposition parties have claimed that President Mugabe’s ruling party has abducted and tortured opponents, including human rights activists and independent journalists. Human Rights Watch issued a statement (http://bit.ly/1NoXqOz) on 8 September saying that six months after Itai Dzamara was taken by five armed men in civilian clothes near his home in Harare on 9 March there is still no news on his whereabouts or fate. Senior government officials have denied any state involvement, but in the months prior to his apparent enforced disappearance, Dzamara had petitioned President Mugabe to resign and to allow fresh elections. On several occasions, state security agents beat, and arbitrarily arrested and detained him, HRW said, adding that other activists, such as Jestina Mukoko, have been abducted in a similar manner by men in civilian clothes who were later revealed to be state security agents. HRW and Amnesty International have called on President Mugabe to set up an independent national commission to investigate the abduction, and for the commission’s findings to be made public. The New Zimbabwe news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1MtwAVn) on 17 September that the abduction of Itai Dzamara has revived the spirit of protest in the country and brought about a “progressive” and “positive anger“, according to Bishop Ancelimo Magaya, who was speaking in Harare at the official launch of the Itai Dzamara Trust, which is intended to encourage democratic forces to challenge the government to respect and observe human rights.

Pakistan

The Nation, a daily from Pakistan, reported (http://bit.ly/1UEXSHnon 8 September that the Commission on Missing Persons is investigating missing workers cases of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the fourth largest party in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Although the MQM’s claim that 150 of its workers are missing has been dismissed by the Pakistan Muslim League government, the Commission on Missing Persons has probed nearly 75 percent of these cases. It started work in July at the request of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance. Senior MQM members say the workers have been missing for two years. The Commission is also dealing with around 1300 cases from different areas of the country. Also on 8 September The Nation reported (http://bit.ly/1LigRCE) that the Sindh High Court had ordered that the names of the leaders of Voice for Baloch Missing persons, Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed, be removed from the Exit Control List (ECL) of people who are prohibited from leaving Pakistan. In the Defense application it was stated that the two men raise their voices for the rights of missing persons but that this does not mean that they are against the state.  Dawn, a daily from Pakistan, carried a story (http://bit.ly/1iItD6O) on 14 September saying that over a decade has passed since Attiqur Rehman, a scientific officer at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, went missing under mysterious circumstances in his hometown Abbottabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northeast Pakistan. While his family members continued moving from one court to another, filing petitions for his safe recovery, the case has been pending before the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (CIED). Several months ago police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province compiled a report on cases of enforced disappearances in this area. According to the report, police had received a total of 1,066 cases related to different districts in the province. The Nation reported (http://bit.ly/1LBgqba) on 25 September that members of the Commission on Missing Persons will ask Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to grant the Commission permanent status. It has disposed of over 1,300 cases from all over Pakistan and attributed responsibility to institutions and groups. It has reportedly received a large number of cases from the Supreme Court and other institutions for further investigation. The Balochwarna news portal reported (http://bit.ly/1KHAYJL) that the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) held a protest in front of the Quetta Press Club on 24 September to demand the release of abducted Baloch activists.