UN working group: High time the Spanish government take enforced disappearances more seriously

October 1, 2013
Representatives of the UN working group at its Sept. 30, 2013 press conference in Madrid. Photo Pilar Oncina.

Representatives of the UN working group at its Sept. 30, 2013 press conference in Madrid. Photo Pilar Oncina.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances closed its visit to Spain yesterday with a poorly attended press conference at which the two UN representatives presented the Spanish government with a long list of urgent tasks: “The State must assume a leadership role and engage more actively to respond to the demands of thousands of families searching for the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the Civil War and the dictatorship,” they said. “The situation of impunity for cases of enforced disappearances that occurred during the Civil War and the dictatorship is regrettable. There is no ongoing effective criminal investigation nor any person convicted.” (Read the UN Press release in English here; read the full text in Spanish of the preliminary observations and recommendations of the Working Group here.)

Ms. Jasminka Dzumhur and Mr. Ariel Dulitzky, two of the five members of the group, visited Spain from September 23 to September 30. After thanking the governmental and judicial authorities, as well as the representatives of civil society and family members of the victims, the working group highlighted the efforts of Spain’s autonomous communities in relation to the recovery of historical memory. The UN officials especially praised the work done by associations of family members, who frequently have taken initiative where the government has not.

Spain’s National Court estimates that around 100,000 individuals were disappeared during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, while an additional 30,000 children were illegally taken from their parents. Although the UN working group has been presented with other cases of “robbed children” and disappearances during the government crackdown on terrorism in the 1970s and ’80s, the officials said they cannot include these into their investigation due to lack of evidence.

The UN working group noted an alarming lack of action on the part of the Spanish government in relation to the victims of enforced disappearances during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.

Specifically, the UN working group called on the Spanish government to:

  • Ratify all the Human Rights treaties against enforced disappearance
  • Include enforced disappearance as a crime in the penal code
  • Strengthen the training of judges and prosecutors in topics related to human rights and international law
  • Provide institutional and financial support to associations of family members and vicims of enforced disappearances
  • Remedy the fact that there is no entity at the level of the state responsible for cases of enforced disappearance
  • Create a centralized database that quantifies the number of enforced disappearances, with a map locating graves and detailing numbers of victims. This database should be publicly accessible to allow for further recovery of remains
  • Create a national plan to locate and recover victims’ remains
  • Make public the list of victims of enforced disappearance that is currently held at the National Court
  • While the 2007 Law of Historical Memory establishes the basic principles and protocols for exhumations of mass graves, the exhumations themselves should not be left to the autonomous communities, as they are now, or to the associations of family members. Rather, the state should be responsible for creating a protocol for exhumation and centralize the exhumantion efforts
  • Create an office for victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship, and do so quickly, keeping in mind that many of the family members are elderly
  • Facilitate public access to information related to past violence. Access to the truth is a fundamental right, but currently the archives are exceedingly difficult to access. The UN calls on the Spanish legislative powers to remedy this situation.
  • Include the right to information in the new Transparency Law that is currently being prepared. It is fundamental that this access to information be free and that it have an “adequate legislative framework.”
  • Facilitate the protection of personal data.

The budget line that had been made available to assist in the location of victims of enforced disappearances has been reduced to zero in the last two years. The UN working group expressed hope that the funds would be reinstated in forthcoming budgets.

The working group further recommended that the removal of public symbols celebrating the dictatorship be continued. It also ratified the principle that enforced disappearance is a crime that cannot prescribe until the disappeared has been located; that it is an international crime; and that the Spanish government should recognize it as such. For that reason, the Amnesty Law adopted in October 1977 does and should not impede the investigation of enforced disappearances that occurred before that date. Finally, the UN working group underscored the importance of education: Spain’s younger generations should be taught about the enforced disappearances, and government officials should be properly trained in national and international legislation related to these crimes.

The analysis of the information received during and before the visit will be considered in preparing the report to be submitted to the Human Rights Council in 2014.  For additional coverage see Reuters; for coverage in Spanish, see El Paísthe BBC, Amnesty International, and Antena 3.

The Working Group was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1980 to assist families in determining the fate and whereabouts of disappeared relatives. It endeavours to establish a channel of communication between the families and the Governments concerned, to ensure that individual cases are investigated, with the objective of clarifying the whereabouts of persons who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law. In view of the Working Group’s humanitarian mandate, clarification occurs when the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person are clearly established. The Working Group continues to address cases of disappearances until they are resolved. It also provides assistance in the implementation by States of the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

English version by Sebastiaan Faber