Transcript: Remarks by WGEID Chair Aua Baldé at JVMI Civil Society Hearing Into Iran’s 1988 Massacre

Verbatim transcript of remarks by Aua Baldé at a Civil Society Hearing on the 1988 Massacre in Iran – 15 February 2024, Geneva:

Thank you very much. Good morning, everyone. I’m very mindful of the time, but I would like to thank you for the kind invitation to join you here today. It’s an honour to be part of this event and to have shared this panel with such distinguished speakers, and in particular to have had the opportunity to hear the testimony of Zohreh, Sima, and Khadijeh.

Please allow me to start by expressing my deepest solidarity to the victims of the 1988 massacre, including the families who bear the burden of the disappearance and who continue relentlessly to seek truth and justice. I salute your bravery and resilience over the years and in the face of so many challenges as we have been discussing today.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was established in 1980 to assist families in determining the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. Under our humanitarian mandate, we serve as a channel of communication between the families and the government. In addition to this, in 1992, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which is applicable to all member states, Iran included. The definition of Enforced Disappearance was mentioned earlier by Sheila Paylan.

I would like to reiterate that although Iran has not ratified the Convention, the Working Group issued a study in 2022 in which it affirmed that the Declaration reflects, codifies, and consolidates customary international law, and therefore it is legally binding on all states and should be regarded as the minimum common denominator of the rules concerning the prevention and eradication of Enforced Disappearance.

Particularly regarding Iran, the Working Group has transmitted 599 cases; of those, 109 concerned women. Of these cases, 21 were clarified by the government and 9 by the sources. However, as we all know, I must emphasise that the number of cases registered by the Working Group is only the tip of the iceberg, as usually is the case in such situations. It is a small number of victims that brings the case before the Working Group due to multiplicity of reasons, including fear of reprisals.

That said, it is important to underline that the Declaration has prescribed several rights to the victims of Enforced Disappearance and obligations to states. So, if you allow me, I would like to further illustrate the rights of the victims and the duties of the states.

To start with, it is important to mention that Enforced Disappearance is a ‘continuous crime’ and has been recognised in several international law instruments, including the Convention and the Declaration. Article 17 of the Declaration prescribes that acts constituting Enforced Disappearance shall be considered a ‘continuing offence’ as long as the perpetrators continue to conceal the fate and whereabouts of persons who were disappeared and these facts remain unclarified.

In addition to the Declaration, the Working Group has issued a general allegation in 2011, recognising that Enforced Disappearance is a continuous act which begins at the time of the abduction and extends until the states acknowledge the detention or the release of information pertaining to the fate and whereabouts of the individual. This is clearly the case that we are discussing here today.

The Working Group considers that Enforced Disappearance is unique and a consolidated act and not a combination of acts, even if some aspect of violation might be completed before the entry into force of relevant national and international instruments, other parts of the violations are still continuing until the fate or whereabouts are established. This is an important remark to make before the audience today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to talk now about the issue of impunity and the obligation of the state of Iran. For decades, the Working Group has drawn attention to the international community to impunity as a distinctive trait of Enforced Disappearance. The Working Group continues to observe alarming patterns of impunity, both in relation to acts of Enforced Disappearance from the past and new Enforced Disappearances occurring in different parts of the world, and Iran is no exception.

The impunity has to do with the distinctive elements of Enforced Disappearance, a crime characterised both by the involvement of state agents or persons or groups of persons acting without authorisation, support or acquisitions of states and the refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of liberty that has occurred and the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

Combating impunity therefore requires that investigations of Enforced Disappearance be carried out with independence and autonomy. An effective investigation of Enforced Disappearance must include information about the whereabouts and the fate of the disappeared persons, the circumstances of their disappearance, and the identity of the perpetrators. Such investigation is not only required by states’ international obligations, including in the Declaration, as I mentioned earlier, but also it is the best way to effectively combat impunity and to realise the right truth for both victims and the society as a whole.

The obligation of the state to investigate can be found in the Article 13 of the Declaration, which also prescribes that such an investigation related to Enforced Disappearance must be carried out until the fate of the person has been clarified.

Thirty-five years after the events, we are still looking for those who have disappeared.

The Working Group has interpreted that, as a rule, the investigation should also be extended to the clarification of the whereabouts of the victims and that principles are based on the continuing nature of the crime of Enforced Disappearance. The state’s duty to investigate includes the following:

It includes the obligation to criminalise Enforced Disappearance autonomously. States should qualify Enforced Disappearance as an independent crime, as provided by the Article 4 of the Declaration. This is critical for the investigation, as it enables authorities in charge to understand the specific nature of the offense and to initiate prompt, proper, and effective investigation into the allegations.

The state is also responsible in the case of the investigation of Enforced Disappearance to the rights of the victims, to include their families and other stakeholders, have them have access and take part in the investigation.

Enforced Disappearance can cause deep anguish, as we have seen today, suffering and harm to the victims and their relatives. Not knowing the whereabouts of a family member can amount to torture. Having access to information during and at all stages of the investigation can be the most effective means of guaranteeing their right to truth. The active participation of victims and the victims’ families in the investigation is also the best means to guarantee transparency and accountability of the investigative process.

Finally, in this regard to states’ obligation, it is important to mention that states should take measures to protect victims against reprisals, and we have heard countless times how victims of Enforced Disappearance, their families and relatives, have been subject to reprisals in seeking for the truth and justice in this case.

One last aspect that I would like to refer here is the right to truth in relation to Enforced Disappearance. The Working Group adopted a general comment in 2011, underscoring that the right has both a collective and an individual dimension. Hence, on one hand, each victim has the right to know about violations that affect him or her, but it is also that the right to truth has a collective dimension to be held at a society level, as it is being done here today. The right to truth in relation to Enforced Disappearance means that the right to know the truth about the progress and the results of an investigation, the fate or the whereabouts of the disappeared persons, and the circumstances of the disappearances and the identity of the perpetrators. This also includes the victims; the relatives of the victims should be closely associated with the investigation as it takes place.

In order to fully comply with this right to truth, the Working Group has often recommended that states adopt measures to promote truth, reparations for the victims, and the reconciliation in their society has a mean of implementing the right to truth and the right to integral reparation for the victims of Enforced Disappearance.

The Working Group emphasises that such processes are often crucial to ensure no repetition of Enforced Disappearance, as well as to clarify cases by uncovering the truth and the fate or the whereabouts of the disappeared person.

I would like to conclude by underlining that over the years, the Working Group received and continues to receive cases dating back from the 1980s and also current cases of Enforced Disappearance, in a clear indication that if past violations are not dealt with, the likelihood of recurrence is very high, as is the result of the case in Iran today.

The Working Group has on many occasions voiced our concerns regarding the situation of Enforced Disappearance in Iran. For instance, in our annual report, actually in the three previous annual reports that we presented before the Human Rights Council, we always made reference to the concerns that we have in regards to the massacres. In the latest one, we stressed that the disappeared persons were allegedly executed without adequate information being provided to their families or loved ones.

The Working Group also reiterated the concern about the failure of the state to comply with its obligation to ensure the location, protection, preservation and exhumation of mass and unmarked grave sites, the investigation thereof in compliance with international standards and with the view of exhuming, respecting, and identifying those buried there, and the search for forcibly disappeared persons in connection with Enforced Disappearance and the summary executions of political dissents.

Today’s event reminds us that victims of Enforced Disappearance, including their relatives, have been fighting for justice and for truth for over three decades now, and it’s also an important reminder that impunity continues to prevail.

We should all raise our voices and call for justice and accountability for the victims of the 1988 massacre. I hope today’s event, the discussion held and, more importantly, the testimonies heard will remind us of our collective responsibility in the fight for justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre.

As a way forward, if you allow me, and within the mandate of the Working Group, I would like to invite the families who have not registered the cases with the Working Group to do so, because as I referred earlier, our numbers are very low, but the cases are still out there, and we would like to register them under our humanitarian mandate.

I would also like to invite the families to seek a meeting with all WGEID members. The Working Group meets three times a year, and during those meetings, we hear families, and we would like to invite you to join us in one of those meetings so that we can learn more about the situation and how we can further assist you.

Finally, the structural issues that have been mentioned here, including the prevailing impunity, the issues of death certificates, and all of that, can be addressed to the government of Iran through a General Allegation. We would also like to receive information on that. I must say, despite our regular exchanges to the government of Iran, and since 2009 we have been insisting on a country visit to Iran, but so far, we have not received any positive reply from the government. But we stand ready to continue to support the victims of the enforced appearances of the 1988 massacre.

Thank you very much for your testimonies.