Tens of thousands of POWs on both sides disappeared during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war

In November 2008, an Iraqi mother called Sabria Jaloob received what she described as a "blessing".

It was the body of her son, Noori, who had vanished during the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran and had not been heard of since.

For more than two decades, Sabria did not know whether he was dead or alive, and lived under a shadow of uncertainty as to his fate.

"Now he is in a cemetery and I will be buried beside him," she says.

It may seem an unusual "blessing", but the fact Sabria describes it as such gives some insight into the suffering of thousands of people around the world.

They are the relatives of the growing number of "disappeared" people - not dead, not alive, but simply vanished.

Forced disappearance was first employed as a tactic by governments in Latin America during the 1970s, but quickly spread to other continents.

Rather than register arrests and submit prisoner to judicial process, governments found it was easier to simply lock up opponents, or to kill them.

Anguish

Today, families all over the world await news of relatives kidnapped by state security forces, trapped in limbo between grief and hope as they wait for news that might never come.

Beatrice Megevand, the International Committee of the Red Cross's head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa, explains how devastating the impact can be for people like Sabria.

Sabria Jaloob and son Moshem waited 25 years to find out what happened to Noori Jaloob

"This never-ending uncertainty is a source of immense anguish for families," she says.

"They want to know, and they have a right to know, what happened to their missing relatives, even if it means having it confirmed that they are dead.”

August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared. This year, events are being organised in more than 20 countries as families pay their respects to lost relatives and campaign for the adoption of an international law to outlaw the practice of "enforced disappearance".

According to experts, it is a growing problem. A UN working group set up to deal with the issue says it has registered more than 50,000 cases since it was established in 1980.

In a statement released this week, the UN working group, which is comprised of five independent experts, described disappearance as a "terrible practice".

"It affects many people worldwide, and has a particular impact on women and children," the statement says.

"Women often bear the brunt of the serious economic hardships that accompany a disappearance."

But enforced disappearance is no longer the preserve of autocrats anxious to crack down on dissent.

Secret prisons

Following the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, the practice was adopted by some of the very countries that had been expected to lead the charge against it.

Under the Bush administration, the US ran a now well-documented network of secret prisons to hold suspected terrorists.

Many have not been heard of since.

In a thinly veiled nod to recent US policy, the UN working group says it "continues to be concerned about arrests committed during military operations; arbitrary detentions and extraordinary renditions, which can amount to enforced disappearances."

"On Obama's first International Day of the Disappeared, 'yes we can' is beginning to have a rather different ring than we first hoped"

Clara Gutteridge,
legal charity Reprieve

Activists warn that the practice could continue under President Barack Obama's administration.

Clara Gutteridge investigates secret prisons and detentions for the London-based legal charity Reprieve.

She says that while some aspects of the reforms implemented by Obama in the treatment of prisoners in US custody represent an improvement, the system still leaves a lot to be desired.

"Obama's people have indicated that rendition – the forcible transfer of individuals to the custody of third-party states – will continue to be used by the US on terror suspects," she says.

"On Obama's first International Day of the Disappeared, 'Yes We Can' is beginning to have a rather different ring than we first hoped."

UN convention

The last five years have seen major international efforts to stamp out the practice of enforced disappearance.

In 2006, the first action of the newly established UN Human Rights Council was to create an international convention to outlaw the practice.

The mere confirmation of Noori Jaloob's death was seen as a blessing by his mother
Since then, 81 countries have signed the convention and 13 have ratified it. It will not come into force until it has been ratified by 20 countries.

The US and the UK, as well as the majority of countries in the Middle East, have failed to sign the agreement.

The slow progress has frustrated those who work with the families of victims, who say that the convention needs signatures and ratifications to be taken seriously.

"This convention can become an effective tool for the international community to eradicate enforced disappearances," says Dave Hardy, the coordinator of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED).

"Universal ratification also represents a political message that this practice is no longer tolerated."

'Countless' disappeared

To mark the International Day for the Disappeared, the ICAED has written to every government in the world asking them to sign, ratify or improve law enforcement against disappearance.

Three years after the treaty opened for signature, the letter hopes to serve as a timely reminder of the problem.

"As countless persons continue to be 'disappeared' throughout the world, the prompt entry into force of the convention and its ratification and effective implementation in all countries must be a priority for the international community, and particularly for countries that have a legacy of enforced disappearances," it says.

The UN working group has echoed the call for universal adoption of the convention: "Its entry into force will help strengthen governments' capacities to reduce the number of disappearances and that it will bolster the hopes and the demands for justice and truth by victims and their families," they say.

On the International Day for the Disappeared, the message is clear; the adoption of international legislation to outlaw the practice of enforced disappearance may not bring back those who have already vanished, but it will prevent more families enduring the fate of Sabria, the Iraqi mother so tormented by uncertainty that she saw confirmation of her own son's death as a "blessing".

Andrew Wander is a Reprieve Media Fellow working on Al Jazeera's Public Liberties and Human Rights' desk.

Reprieve is a legal charity based in London that represents more than 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and investigates US secret prisons worldwide.

Source: Al Jazeera