30th August: International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance

“This person does not exist” – a chilling phrase, often uttered by State officials in the context of enforced disappearance. Practically, it demonstrates refusal to officially acknowledge a person’s detention, a constituent part of the act[1]. Metaphorically, it shows how enforced disappearance differs from other crimes like arbitrary detention. When a person is forcibly disappeared, they are essentially removed from the protection of the law, putting them at greater risk of other human rights violations. This crime has a doubly paralyzing effect. The direct victim is rendered invisible, severed from those who could advocate for them. Their loved ones are forced to contend with prolonged silence and uncertainty, with no end in sight. The experience creates significant suffering for everyone involved; given this, international law recognizes the families of disappeared persons as full victims.

Since February 2022, Ukraine has been in a state of crisis, fighting for its sovereignty. For those in occupied territories, the existential threat of war is accompanied by ongoing terror. Hundreds of Ukrainians have been arbitrarily detained by Russian forces since the start of hostilities[2]. Many of these cases constitute enforced disappearances. Detainees are apprehended for various reasons, including perceived support for Ukraine, political affiliation, and for ‘filtration’ purposes[3]. None of these are legitimate grounds for wartime detention under international humanitarian law[4].

Victims are often detained incommunicado with no charge in unofficial places, suffering the likes of unlawful interrogation, torture, and sexual violence[5]. In many cases, they are forcibly transferred to other occupied territories in Ukraine or even to Russia[6]. Countless family members face the horror of being unable to find their loved ones, some of whom vanished overnight. Occupying authorities refuse to acknowledge the disappearances or provide any information[7]. For some, even the end of occupation brings no relief – Russian forces take prisoners with them as they retreat[8].

The effects of enforced disappearance stretch far beyond the victims. Throughout history, autocratic regimes have used the practice to suppress dissent, spreading fear through society[9]. In Ukraine, the trauma of war is compounded by such fear; frequent detentions and disappearances instill obedience through terror. In this, Russia’s actions move beyond an assault on Ukraine’s land or identity, targeting the spirit of its people.

Often described as a ‘living death’, enforced disappearance is an offence to human dignity. From Gambia to Argentina to Sri Lanka, countless victims still recall the dread and anguish caused by this heinous crime. Its widespread practice warps society, creating a climate of repression. As disappearances continue in Ukraine and beyond, the international community should call for accountability. For both victims and society, there must be justice.

[1] Article 2, Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Adopted December 2010)

[2] In its recent report, Detention of Civilians in the Context of Armed Attack by the Russian Federation Against Ukraine (June 2023), the UN OHCHR documented 864 individual cases of arbitrary detention perpetrated by the Russian Federation between 24th February 2022 and 23rd May 2023 (para 5). They emphasized that the Russian Federation did not provide access to conflict-related detainees (para 3), leading some to conclude the numbers are likely higher.

Their findings have been corroborated by other monitoring missions, e.g: OSCE ODIHR, Third Interim Report on reported violations of IHL and IHRL in Ukraine (July 2023).

Additionally, news outlets continue to record widespread arbitrary detentions of Ukrainians. The Associated Press recently released its findings from extensive interviews – “Thousands of Ukrainian Civilians are being held in Russian Prisons”, VOA News (15th July 2023).

[3] See UN OHCHR report (paras 39-46, 51-67), OSCE ODIHR report (para 42), and article by Associated Press cited above.

[4] Geneva Convention IV (1949), article 42

[5] See UN OHCHR report (paras 66-67, 87), OSCE ODIHR report (paras 48, 55-64), and article by Associated Press cited above.

[6] See UN OHCHR report (para 77) and OSCE ODIHR report (para 49)

Natalia Churikova and Andriy Hetman, “Ukrainian Families demand return of Loved Ones from Russia”, VOA News (24th August 2023)

[7] See UN OHCHR report (para 68), OSCE ODIHR report (para 45), and both articles cited above.

[8] See UN OHCHR report (paras 78 and 96)

[9] Center for Strategic & International Studies, “Addressing the Continuing Phenomenon of Enforced Disappearances” (18th August 2022)

Image courtesy Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

Author: Anuja Jaiswal, LL.M, Transnational Crime and Justice, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute

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