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The German-Argentine student Klaus Zieschank was kidnapped in March 1976 under the Argentine military dictatorship by members of the military who remained anonymous. About two months later, his body was found on a river bank. However, he was initially buried anonymously and only identified in 1985. His fate is similar to that of the tens of thousands of people who disappeared ( Desaparecidos ) in South America in the 1970s and 1980s.

Disappearance (also forced disappearance ; span. Desaparición forzada , English forced disappearance ) is a form of state arbitrariness , in which state or quasi-state organs bring people into their power and withdraw the protection of the law for a longer period of time Public is denied. Enforced disappearance is generally used as a means of state repression against political opponents, alleged criminals or even just people who disapprove of the ruling group. It is sanctioned as a crime against humanity in international law and is considered one of the most serious human rights violations .

The victims are usually arrested or kidnapped by members of the security forces who remain anonymous and brought to a secret location . The relatives and the public do not find out anything about the sudden "disappearance" or the whereabouts of the person who has disappeared - even if explicitly requested or ordered by a court. In most cases the victims are killed without a judicial process after a short to several months imprisonment, during which they are often tortured . their bodies are being disposed of. Since the murder is usually kept top secret and state authorities strictly deny any involvement, relatives and friends often remain for years in a desperate state between hope and resignation, although the victim was often killed a few days or weeks after his disappearance.

Enforced disappearances are defined as a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute, which came into force in 2002 . It thus forms one of the legal norms for the case law of the International Criminal Court in The Hague . The statute defines the facts as follows:

“Forced disappearance of persons means the arrest, deprivation of liberty or kidnapping of persons; carried out, supported or approved by a state or a political organization, followed by a refusal to recognize this deprivation of liberty or to provide information about the fate or whereabouts of these persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a long period of time. "

The fate of the several hundred thousand so-called Desaparecidos (German: The Disappeared ) in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, who fell victim to right-wing military dictatorships , is particularly well known . More recently, the US has been criticized for its approach to the “ war on terror ”, in which terror suspects were kidnapped ( Extraordinary rendition ) and held in secret prisons ( black sites ) without trial . Amnesty International has found that this is also practiced by a large number of other countries, in part to detain or even kill politically unpopular people for no reason under the pretext of combating terrorism. Protecting the forcibly “disappeared” is one of Amnesty International's key areas of activity. Members are campaigned to write letters or e-mails to members of the government in the perpetrator's country in order to draw public attention to the victims and thereby protect them.


Pre- and legal history: From “Habeas Corpus” to the modern constitutional state

In the Middle Ages and in the early modern period , kings and princes freely and arbitrarily dispose of the freedom and life of their subjects and regularly let them "disappear", even without notifying relatives - today, however, such action is usually not associated with the modern term of "enforced disappearance." " designated. The legalized view that the state has a responsibility towards the individual and was not allowed to capture and kill them at will was first established in England in the 16th century with the so-called habeas corpus legislation, which restricted the actions of the rulers accordingly . The modern rule of law , which essentially developed in Europe in the 19th century, added further restrictions to these restrictions, according to which state action must take the rights of the individual as an absolute standard:

"The rule of law means that the exercise of state power is only permissible on the basis of the constitution and formally and materially constitutionally enacted laws with the aim of guaranteeing human dignity , freedom , justice and legal security ."

The modern forms of forced disappearance of people represent fundamental breaches of these principles, which is why they are practically all illegal in democratic constitutional states according to applicable laws. The perpetrators, who typically come from politics, the military, the police or the secret services , must therefore expect to be charged and convicted of serious crimes (e.g. deprivation of liberty, torture and murder ) after switching to another government . To prevent this, the acts are usually kept top secret . Sometimes attempts are also made to create a legal justification for such action through appropriate laws , mostly based on an alleged “ state emergency ”, see for example the highly controversial US Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

Hitler's Night and Fog Decree

Memorial plaque for French night and fog victims, Hinzert concentration camp

One of the first systematic deployments of enforced disappearance tactics was started in 1941 by Hitler's so-called Night and Fog Decree of December 7, 1941. The decree was in the form of a secret directive and was recorded in writing, which was the first systematic instruction for such state action to be defined. The background was the realization that arrests carried out in the German-occupied territories of France and protracted trials led to the murdered being celebrated as martyrs and the resistance being strengthened. French and other nationals from occupied western countries who opposed the Germans in World War II were therefore kidnapped and taken to German territory, where they remained completely isolated.

Soviet occupation zone

The authorities of the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) adopted these methods in the post-war years; the number of those who disappeared without a trace in the so-called special camps was also high in the east of Germany between 1945 and 1949, according to estimates there were up to 150,000 victims. The area of ​​crime led into the western sectors of Berlin . One of the more well-known victims of this policy in 1951 was the father of the future German President Joachim Gauck , whose family also learned absolutely nothing about the fate of the arrested person from the GDR authorities for a long time.

The French doctrine

Drawing by Roger Trinquier , a French paratrooper officer and theoretician of the “modern war” against insurgents, which later became known as the “ dirty war ”.

France used enforced disappearances on a massive scale under French doctrine in the Algerian War in the 1950s, particularly in the so-called Battle of Algiers . French paratroopers took action against the Algerian liberation movement FLN with the methods of what was later called the “dirty war” . The officer Roger Trinquier wrote a book on military theory (La guerre moderne) on these methods, which is still regarded today as the standard work for combating insurgents in asymmetrical conflicts . However, after they became known in part, these human rights violating methods led to a massive weakening of France's domestic and foreign policy, as a result of which France had to withdraw from Algeria a few years later despite the almost complete physical destruction of the FLN . To this day, these incidents, especially the massive use of torture and the unlawful killing of suspects, are largely taboo in France .

The French journalist Marie-Monique Robin researched that the French doctrine was exported from France to Latin America in the 1970s , where it was used in the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina . French military and intelligence advisors also played an important role in training some of the intelligence services involved in Operation Condor . In Argentina alone, the military tortured and murdered up to 30,000 people as supposed enemies of the state using these methods (see below).

The practices of the French doctrine were then used in the 1990s by the Algerian government, which stands in the tradition of the FLN, against its own people in the Algerian civil war .

Vietnam War

In the Vietnam War , enforced disappearances were practiced as part of psychological warfare . The background was the realization that it was not so much the death of relatives that made the Vietnamese who were involved in the war psychologically vulnerable, but the impossibility of performing the mourning and farewell ceremony due to a dead person.

Northern Ireland Conflict

In the Northern Ireland conflict , which escalated from 1969 and reached its climax in the 1970s, the IRA repeatedly used the means of enforced disappearance of persons who were allegedly traitors to the Irish Republican side. The remains of these so-called Disappeared , kidnapped and murdered by the IRA, were discovered in various locations in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the decades that followed. Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a joint Irish-British commission has been trying to clarify the fate of these disappeared people.

Northern Cyprus

In the course of the occupation of the north of the Republic of Cyprus by Turkey as part of Operation Atilla , around 1,500 Cypriots were captured and are still missing today. The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) is researching the fate of the people.

The "dirty war" in Latin America

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told representatives of the Argentine military dictatorship in June 1976 that he hoped they would "get their terrorism problem under control as soon as possible". The Argentine foreign minister, who had expected sharp criticism, was then in a “euphoric mood”. Over the next seven years , the military murdered up to 30,000 people in their self-proclaimed "dirty war" , most of them disappearing without a trace.
Illustration by the Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff as a “tribute to the missing documentary filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer and to all the missing victims of the US-backed right-wing dictatorships in South America”.

In Latin America , almost all countries in the 1970s and 1980s were ruled by right-wing military dictatorships, often politically supported by the USA . Almost all of them used force to suppress the mostly left-wing opposition in so-called dirty wars . A common means of doing this was the secret disappearance of unpopular people by members of the security forces who remained anonymous. The victims were mostly tortured and humiliated while imprisoned in secret prisons , and in very many cases subsequently murdered (see Desaparecidos ). For arrest and murder it could sometimes be sufficient if the name appeared in a “suspicious” context or if the victim happened to know a (already arrested) suspect who had mentioned the name under the distress of torture.

During the military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 alone, up to 30,000 people disappeared in this way without a trace. After the transition of states to democracy, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, the prosecution of such crimes in many countries was prevented for years by general amnesty laws for the perpetrators. In recent years, however, these have been retroactively repealed in several countries , so that numerous former dictators and torturers have now been punished or are still on trial.

These massive human rights violations were carried out according to plan and with full awareness of the illegality. The Argentine general Luciano Benjamín Menéndez had already announced at the beginning of the takeover of power by the military: “We will have to kill 50,000 people. 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers and we will make 5,000 mistakes. ”In July 2010 Menéndez was again sentenced to life imprisonment for the fourth time for his involvement in crimes against humanity . As the verdict was announced, the audience, which consisted mostly of relatives of the disappeared and human rights activists, stood up and applauded.

According to estimates by human rights organizations, the total balance of Latin American repression policy in the 1970s and 1980s was around 50,000 murdered, 350,000 permanently "disappeared" and 400,000 prisoners.

For more background, see: Relations between Latin America and the United States # 1970s: The Era of the Juntas

US Action in the War on Terror

Amnesty International logo . One of the organization’s main areas of activity is to publicize the fate of “disappeared” people who have been kidnapped by state security forces for political or religious reasons. It also publicizes systematic violations of human rights by states and urges them to be observed.

Secret prisons

Since around 2001, the US had begun kidnapping terrorist suspects without a legal basis ( Extraordinary rendition ) and detaining them for long periods of time in secret prisons that the US military referred to as black sites without trial . Several cases have become known in which, after several months or even years of imprisonment, it turned out that the arrested were innocent or the victim of mistake. The best known is that of Murat Kurnaz , a Turkish resident , and another high-profile case was that of the completely innocent Canadian Maher Arar , who was arrested by the USA and then transferred to Syria in 2002 . He was detained there under inhumane conditions for ten months and claims to have been tortured.

Since the CIA is officially not allowed to use torture , it has become common practice to fly the prisoners to friendly countries, where they are interrogated by interrogators from those countries. In this context, the fact, which has also been confirmed several times by US authorities, that preference is given to countries that systematically torture, such as Syria and Egypt , was particularly criticized .

In 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled that some of the US government practices listed above were illegal. To create a legal basis for its further action, the Bush administration created the controversial Military Commissions Act . In one part that has received little public attention, the law contains a kind of general amnesty for crimes committed by US citizens before the law came into force, which commentators have interpreted as related to the above-mentioned practices. For years, the administration of President Bush demanded immunity for US citizens before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which the latter refused to grant. In the meantime, the USA has concluded bilateral agreements with more than 50 states that are intended to prevent the extradition of US citizens from these countries to The Hague.

German arrest warrants against CIA agents

In Germany, arrest warrants have been issued against ten CIA agents in connection with the kidnapping of the German citizen Khaled al-Masri . In Italy, 26 CIA agents are wanted by arrest warrant for the kidnapping of Imam Abu Omar .

According to official US data from 2006, the secret prisons operated by the CIA had been closed during that year. According to a report in the Financial Times, this decision, which has long been demanded by the UN Human Rights Council, was accelerated by the fact that interrogation specialists from the CIA refused to continue interrogating prisoners in these facilities due to the unclear legal situation.

Changes under Obama

On January 21, 2009, one of the first days after he took office, President Barack Obama ordered the closure of all secret CIA prisons with immediate effect. At least the closure of Guantánamo ( Guantanamo Bay Naval Base ) promised during the election campaign has not yet been implemented.

Terror suspects who have disappeared permanently

In 2006, a merger publish six human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch , a list of 36 people, caught either known or highly likely by US authorities under suspicion of terrorism were held, and "disappeared" the (English disappeared ) be. They did not appear again, nor would the US authorities answer questions about their fate or their whereabouts. Law professor Margaret Satterthwaite said in April 2009:

"Until the US government clarifies the fate and whereabouts of these individuals, these people are still disappeared, and disappearance is one of the most grave international human rights violations."

"Until the US government clarifies the fate and whereabouts of these individuals, these people will still be missing, and enforced disappearances is one of the most serious international human rights violations."


Demonstration in Warsaw in memory of the Jury Sacharanka, Wiktar Hantschar, Anatoli Krassouski and Dmitri Sawadski

In 1999 and 2000, five Belarusian opposition activists disappeared . These were Viktor Hantschar , Dmitri Sawadski , Jury Sacharanka , Anatoli Krassouski and Tamara Vinnikowa , who later reappeared . Investigations by the Council of Europe suggested that they were kidnapped and murdered by so-called death squads with close contacts to the government.


In China, numerous CEOs disappeared according to a CNN report from June 2017. Some soon reappeared; others went missing for months or years.

An Arte report reported in September 2019 that the successful Chinese entrepreneur Hu Kexin, who bought farmland in France and hired bakers to import French bread to China, suddenly disappeared. According to current entries on the website of his Reward Group, he apparently continues to run the company together with his daughter. Another Chinese billionaire, Guo Wangui, who now lives in New York, is wanted in China for alleged corruption and tries to warn other industrialists via social media. According to him, the Chinese Communist Party let the entrepreneurs do their thing for years to build up the economy and now it wants to get rid of them because they are afraid of their influence. In total, dozens, some NGOs estimate, possibly up to 400 millionaires and billionaires, would have disappeared.

Facts in German law and German legal practice

With the advancement of the rule of law in the criminal process of the 19th century, the right of the arrested person to inform his relatives was standardized for the first time. An obligation to notify them by the authorities came into German law only after 1945. In 1949, a subjective basic right was enshrined in the German Basic Law, and the Code of Criminal Procedure followed suit. The Federal Republic has had a valid regulation for many years. This protection is taking place more slowly at the international level. Various international law standards are currently still below the German level.

In the Basic Law , the above is expressed specifically in Article 104, Paragraph 4. This formulates the maxim that the state must not allow any person to disappear without a trace, which is expressed in the inevitable obligation to notify a relative or acquaintance of the arrested person:

"A family member of the detainee or a person he trusts must be notified immediately of every judicial decision on the order or continuation of a deprivation of liberty."

However, it was partly criticized that in German legal practice this is often interpreted as an optional provision and is therefore by no means followed consistently. The lawyer and university professor Miloš Vec commented:

"[... that] the overwhelming number of German judges downgraded the strictly standardized obligation to notify to a mere right to be informed and thus undermined it. In the constitutional prosperity of the Federal Republic of Germany, informational self-determination is more important to them than an outmoded vehicle. "

Relation to international law: International Criminal Code

The International Criminal Code (VStGB) regulates the consequences of criminal offenses against international law in Germany , and thus also cases of enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity (see below). The law came into force in June 2002. It adapted the German substantive criminal law to the provisions of the Rome Statute (see below) and thus created the conditions for their prosecution by the German criminal justice system. This created new penal provisions for crimes against humanity, war crimes and civil war crimes , as well as the transfer of genocide offenses from the German Criminal Code (StGB).

According to § 1 VStGB, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are subject to the principle of universal law , i. H. criminal liability under German law exists regardless of where, by whom and against whom it is committed. This also includes disappearances. Acts abroad between foreign nationals are also recorded.

International right

The building of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Since 2002, enforced disappearance crimes can also be prosecuted internationally.
Protest poster in Argentina (2006) with the call "killer - No to draw a line ", including the announcement of a demonstration

With the entry into force of the so-called Rome Statute in 2002, which forms the international legal basis of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, enforced disappearance was codified as a crime against humanity for the first time in international law . Previously, such crimes were extremely difficult to prosecute outside the states in which the crimes were committed. Above all, the unsatisfactory situation with regard to the lack of criminal liability for the tens of thousands of people being enforced disappearances in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s ( Desaparecidos , see above) led to considerable international political and legal efforts to make such acts prosecutable in the future under international law. In parallel to the Rome Statute, various bodies within the UN gradually developed the UN Convention against Enforced Disappearances from around 1980 , which was passed in 2006 and came into force in 2010.

With the gradual end of the dictatorship phase in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, many countries, under pressure from the military, had passed far-reaching amnesty laws that made criminal prosecution within the countries practically impossible, such as the Argentine Cutoff Act . One way out appeared to be to prosecute those involved in European countries for the deprivation of liberty and murder of Europeans or South Americans with European passports and to bring them to court there after extradition requests . For example, in connection with the enforced disappearance of Spanish nationals, the Argentine officer Adolfo Scilingo was sentenced by a Spanish court in April 2005 to a prison sentence of 640 years, and on appeal to a 1084 year prison term. The German Coalition against Impunity was going on in these spheres, and the Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzón left the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2000 in England arrest .

The coalition against impunity began its work in 1998 at the request of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the family members of the German and German-born Argentine disappearances who, despite years of efforts, had not found justice in Argentina. Despite various notable successes, these legal measures were ultimately heavily dependent on the willingness of the governments of the perpetrator states to cooperate, which often hindered their success.

For crimes committed from 2002 onwards, the described legal detours are no longer the only possibility of criminal prosecution, because the perpetrators can now - after starting work at the International Criminal Court - also be prosecuted under international law. However, the Rome Statute also defines the general principles of criminal law applicable to the International Criminal Court (ICC), such as nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without a legal basis) and the prohibition of retroactive effects . Because of the legal prohibition of retroactivity, acts committed before 2002 cannot generally be prosecuted by the ICC, and consequently also not the crimes against the Desaparecidos . However, the political influence of the military in South America has decreased with increasing time. For this reason, several national amnesty laws (for example in Argentina) have recently been declared unconstitutional and as a result numerous dictators, officers and secret police have been brought to justice again and sentenced to long prison terms, such as the Argentine ex-dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in 2010 .

121 states are currently bound by the ICC statute. Numerous states, including the United States , Russia , the People's Republic of China , India , Pakistan , Turkey and Israel , have not yet become contracting parties because they oppose the International Criminal Court for various reasons (see also the United States' approach and history above of the Rome Statute ).

Rejection of the ICC by the USA

The US does not recognize the International Criminal Court, the challenged Bush administration an immunity for US citizens from the court, but did not want to grant the ICC. In 2002, when the Rome Statute for the ICC came into force, the American Service-Members' Protection Act came into effect , which implicitly empowers the US President to carry out military exemptions for US citizens if they had to answer before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Cooperation with the court is prohibited in US authorities. Because of the implicit threat of invasion by US troops, the law was also called the "Hague Invasion Act" by critics, translated as "Law on the Invasion of The Hague".

In addition, the law allows all states that are not members of NATO and ratify the Rome Statute under international law to receive US military aid . By 2003, the USA had signed bilateral agreements with more than 50 states to prevent the extradition of US citizens from these countries to The Hague, and in 2003 military aid to 35 states that did not want to sign such agreements was canceled.


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See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b Dafna Linzer: The Detention Dilemma. Dozens of Prisoners Held by CIA Still Missing, Fates Unknown. ProPublica, April 22, 2009
  2. Amnesty International: Nobody is allowed to “disappear”! Archived from the original on March 28, 2009 ; Retrieved October 23, 2008 .
  3. Quoted from Klaus Stern : The constitutional law of the Federal Republic of Germany - Volume I , CH Beck, 1984, § 20 III.
  4. Obama signs defense bill, pledges to maintain legal rights of US citizens. Retrieved January 14, 2012 .
  5. USA «may» arrest »suspected« terrorists »worldwide . In: Schweizer Fernsehen , January 5, 2012. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
  6. ^ Keith Olbermann : Beginning of the end of America. , MSNBC, October 19, 2006
  7. a b c Miloš Vec : disappeared without a trace. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , October 17, 2007, No. 241, p. 38.
  8. ^ Marie-Monique Robin: Death Squads - How France Exported Torture and Terror. In: Arte program archive . September 8, 2004, archived from the original on July 21, 2012 ; accessed on March 9, 2018 .
  9. ^ Argentine Military believed US gave go-agead for Dirty War. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, 73 - Part II, CIA Confidential Documents, published 2002.
  10. ^ Paul H. Lewis: Guerrillas and generals: the "Dirty War" in Argentina . Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, p. 147.
  11. “Dirty War”. General Receives Fourth Life Sentence ( Memento from September 24, 2014 in the Internet Archive ). Argentinia Independent, July 11, 2010
  12. ^ "Operation Condor" ( Memento from September 12, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) - Terror in the name of the state. tagesschau.de, September 12, 2008
  13. Amnesty International: Off the Record - US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the “War on Terror” (PDF; 100 kB)
  14. a b USA cut 35 states from military aid. In: Spiegel Online . July 2, 2003, accessed August 20, 2008 .
  15. Al-Masri kidnapping: arrest warrants against 13 CIA agents , Die Zeit, January 31, 2007 ( Memento of February 2, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  16. ^ Investigations against the CIA also in Italy. the daily newspaper, February 1, 2007.
  17. ^ Arrest warrant for 26 people in Italy, flight to Egypt ( memento from October 13, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Blick.ch The list of Henry Habegger and Beat Kraushaar , February 1, 2007.
  18. CIA officials refused to interrogate them in secret prisons. In: Spiegel Online. September 21, 2006, accessed August 22, 2008 .
  19. ^ Obama Issues Directive to Shut Down Guantánamo. In: New York Times. January 21, 2009. Retrieved August 12, 2009 .
  20. ^ Off the Record. ( Memento of June 14, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF) US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the “War on Terror”. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch et al. Retrieved from Ney York Law School
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  22. Threatened mistreatment and torture / threatened "disappearance" . amnesty.de. November 25, 1999. Archived from the original on July 12, 2016. Retrieved on April 7, 2012.
  23. Belarusian government critic found dead . SZ-Online . Archived from the original on September 6, 2010. Retrieved on September 4, 2010.
  24. CNN.com June 14, 2017: China has a worrying habit of making business leaders disappear
  25. Company report : 中共 洛娃 集团 党委 召开 庆祝 中国 共产党 成立 99 周年 视频 大会 luowa.com, published July 2, 2020, accessed July 20, 2020.
  26. ARTE report: China: Billionaires just disappear ... youtube.com, published September 25, 2019, accessed October 9, 2019. - Video (24:54)
  27. Sylvia Karl: Convention against Enforced Disappearances. In: Sources on the history of human rights. Working Group on Human Rights in the 20th Century, May 2015, accessed on January 11, 2017 .
  28. a b c d Coalition against Impunity. ( Memento from August 12, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) "Truth and Justice for the German Disappeared in Argentina". Organization website.
  29. El País , July 5, 2007: El Supremo eleva a 1.084 años la pena de Scilingo por crímenes contra la humanidad (Spanish).
  30. The Current Role of Military Power in Latin America. ( Memento from October 21, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Invitation text for the day seminar of the educational institute of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Berlin in cooperation with the FDCL, September 8, 2007.
  31. 'Hague Invasion Act' Becomes Law. Human Rights Watch, Aug. 4, 2002