International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances/ Desaparecidos

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | August 30,2023 - 08:00 AM

Desaparecidos artwork by Toym Imao

Desaparecidos artwork by Toym Imao

The “International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances” or “Desaparecidos Day”  is observed August 30 annually since 2011. “Desaparecidos” is the Spanish and Portuguese word for “disappeared people” or victims of forced disappearance.

The UN Commission on Human Rights’ defined desaparecidos with three elements: (a) deprivation of liberty against the will of a person;  (b) involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence; and (c) refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.”

The UN said that enforced disappearance had frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects  the community as a whole.

The UN added that once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances were also perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents.

The UN identifies as particular concerns (a) the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance; (b) the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations; (c) and the widespread impunity for enforced disappearance.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (which took effect on December 23, 2010), states that, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed at any civilian population, a “forced disappearance” qualifies as a crime against humanity. It gives victims’ families the right to seek reparations, and to demand the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones. The Philippines has not yet ratified the convention.

During the Pandesal Forum of Kamuning Bakery, families of desaparecidos stressed that the enforced disappearances were clear violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security of person, as well as the right to due process and a fair trial.

Data from Karapatan note that there are more  than 1,000 cases during the late dictator’s term, 821 during Cory Aquino’s presidency; 39 under Ramos’s term; 26 under Estrada administration; 206 during Arroyo’s term; 29 during Noynoy Aquino’s administration; and more than 20 under Duterte’s term.

Under the present  administration, there are already 8 desaparecidos, including University of the Philippines alumni and indigenous people’s rights activists Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan abducted April 28, 2023 in Taytay, Rizal; Elena Pampoza and Elgene Mungcal abducted July 3 in Tarlac; Ariel Badiang abducted February 7 in Budkidnon; Lyn Grace Martullinas, Renel delos Santos and Denald Mailen abducted April 19 in Negros Occidental.

Activist Jonas Burgos was abducted on April 28, 2007 in Quezon City during the Arroyo  presidency.

Coincidentally, Burgos, De Jesus and Capuyan were abducted on the same day but 16 years apart.

On February 2, 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the findings of the Court of Appeals on the petition for writ of habeas corpus that named the Armed Forces of the Philippines as accountable for the abduction of Burgos.

The families of de Jesus and Capuyan have filed separate petitions for habeas corpus at the Court of Appeals.

The Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 was signed into law on December 21, 2012 by then President Noynoy Aquino III. The law makes the crime of enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment. The law treats enforced disappearances as a violation of human rights and a crime separate from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and murder.

Critics warned that the broad offenses cited in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 or  R.A.  11479 could make it easier for the government to commit human rights violations, including the occurrences of desaparecidos, suppressing lawful dissent and principled advocacy.

The law will galvanize “red-tagging” that has often been directed towards individuals and organizations critical of the government, who are labelled “communist” or “terrorist” regardless of their actual beliefs or affiliations.

The “Bantayog ng mga Desaparecido” is a monument unveiled on July 13, 1994 in Baclaran Church to honor the victims of the  Marcos dictatorship. The monument depicts a woman carrying a torch and a child holding a picture of his missing father.

As the struggle for truth and justice by the families of the desaparecidos continue, Filipinos must be vigilant against the ominous threat of State sponsored suppression of dissent.

“Days have turned into weeks and weeks into months. We continue to seek justice and hope the day will soon come when we stop counting, and we worry no more,” says Eli Capuyan, brother of Dexter Capuyan.

(Peyups is the moniker of University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)

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