09/02/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Those Hiding Truth About Disappeared Are Enemies of Humanity

The practice of enforced disappearance ranks as one of the most heinous forms of conduct imaginable, even in the context of truly deep evil. Wherever it has occurred -- regardless of whether 20 people or 20,000 people have been disappeared -- the level of pre-meditation and planning involved is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it speaks to an almost fathomless depth of human alienation. No one involved in doing this is unaware of what it means for the victims and for their families. Secondly, it means that there is always some information of immense value to the families if their loved one has not come back.

Forced disappearance is a form of organized crime. We are talking about hierarchies of people making choices about who should be taken, what teams or groups should carry out the task, where the people should be taken, the maintenance of such locations, staffing, torture mechanisms, record keeping of interviews, and the means by which to dispose of bodies. It is precisely because of the levels of organization always inevitably involved that some information exists. Despite the fact that everyone knows that such information is in the hands of those responsible and can be made available, insufficient effort is put into making the release of this information a priority. As a result, the problem of forced disappearances becomes not only a personal trauma, but an inter-generational obstacle to the pursuit of rebuilding fractured communities.

Beyond the level of planning involved, it is the objectives of this crime that are especially chilling. Of course, one objective is to remove a perceived political opponent, a member of "the other side." But the other objectives are to strike terror into the hearts of families, to sentence them to a life of fear and doubt. The consequences of losing a family member through enforced disappeared are -- it is trite to say -- life defining. The relatives have no choice but to respond; to look for the person disappeared, to demand the truth, to track down every detail, to keep hope alive; and when hope dies, love and duty insists that the memory is kept alive and that the cause is not deserted. Families are often torn apart as each one tries to find the right way to deal with the misery of unknowing.

Every year, on August 30, there is a day to acknowledge the disappeared. Among the cynical such acknowledgment days provoke a roll of the eyes and a world-weary shrug indicating that this is all strictly for the tree-hugging fraternity. We should not be paralyzed by such cynicism. This day serves two purposes. It gives a simple chance to offer a degree of human solidarity to those suffering under the burden of having a loved one disappeared. And it allows social forces to come together to demand that we keep a focus on issues, which, perhaps inevitably, fall off the news agenda.

Even on a day like today, it seems almost impossible to bring attention to this plight, drawn as we are to so much of the Middle East in flames or Ukraine on the brink. Despite the issues clamoring for immediate attention, those engaged in the processes of rebuilding after conflict and repression would do well to redouble their efforts on the legacy of forced disappearances. It is both a moral imperative and a pragmatic necessity.

Since 1976 individuals have had the right to bring cases before a United Nations body to complain about human rights violations. Almost all of that body's early cases focused on forced disappearances in Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a result there was a growing recognition first of a need and then of a right of families to know what had happened to those disappeared. In time this formed the notion of what has become known as the right to truth. Sometimes it helps to talk of rights, but sometimes it seems to obscure with legal opacity something much more urgent and human. I have no doubt that those families have an absolute, incontrovertible and immediate right to know everything that can be known: where was their loved one taken, who or what agency was responsible, how was he or she treated, where is the body if the person is not still alive. But I also wonder what kind of human being can continue year after year to justify to themselves the withholding of such information; what fundamental lack of basic decency could drive another human being to willfully continue the suffering of others, long after the "utility" of the disappearance could have served its purpose. For some people there may be crueler forms of conduct, but it speaks to me of a basic abandonment of all human feeling. Whatever cause they are defending by such cruelty, I would want no part of it.

Every society facing a legacy of massive human rights violations has to make a more-or-less deliberate choice about how to deal with them. There are three predictable challenges: the number of violations is overwhelming; there are competing demands for scarce resources; and dealing with the past may risk current stability. These are difficult issues and there is no perfect way to address them, but there is simply no excuse for keeping information about people who have been disappeared from their families. It does not matter if we are talking about twenty people or twenty thousand people.

In places like Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, enforced disappearances were carried out on an industrial scale as the method of choice of regimes wanting to eliminate political dissent, a policy that was tolerated, advised, and supported by the United States in the context of the Cold War. In Lebanon the phenomenon was widespread among a number of armed factions, but the fate of tens of thousands remains unknown despite the indefatigable efforts of their families to uncover the truth. The Bosnian war in the 1990s left many villages and towns in the dark about what had happened to their loved ones. In a small town like Prijedor, in Bosnia, over 800 people remain unaccounted for, likely disappeared. In all of these cases and many more, the forced disappearances were planned; addresses were handed out, people were selected, sites made available. We should reserve some skepticism when we hear those involved in those operations calling for renewed commitment to the cause of the disappeared. Frequently they are the very people with the information that is needed.

On this day we must reiterate that there is no good reason why the fate of any person disappeared by a state, a paramilitary faction, or any other group in the course of conflict or repression should remain unknown. The quality and precision of information may vary, but those who did it know what they did and to whom they did it. It may not always be possible to locate the missing or their remains physically, but there should be no respite on the pressure put on those who are alleged to have disappeared any individual.

It goes beyond that -- failure to do so is not only profoundly inhumane, it also guarantees a lingering poison spreading through society, making reconciliation or sustainable peace an endeavor with little chance of success. Those with information about the disappeared and who refuse to provide it are in the most literal sense the enemies of humanity. They are also the enemies of peace and reconciliation. There should be no let-up on the pressure on them to provide the information that they have.

No state or faction has a justifiable reason to keep the information of what they did a secret. The law, and more importantly the most basic concepts of human decency and human dignity demand it.