International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances

August 30 – International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. In Sydney we rallied together – First Nations, Bangladeshis, Rohingyas, Kashmiris, West Papuans, Tamils, Sikhs, Kurds and local supporters – to send a united call to the Australian government to be a leading global voice for justice for all the disappeared and for the perpetrators to be held to account. I spoke along with Senator David Shoebridge and representatives of most of these communities. #EndEnforcedDisappearances

Today hundreds of similar events are being held around the world. We are part of a growing global voice exposing the crime of enforced disappearances and calling for action against the perpetrators. The breadth of the communities represented here is a powerful statement that governments must listen and act on our demands.  

I warmly thank the Global Voice for Humanity and the South Asian Policy Initiative for organising todays event and bringing us all together. 

Today, August 30 – International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances – is deeply painful for so many. Ruthless regimes have destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Their families left to grieve for decades wondering – have their loved one been gaoled, are they still alive, where they killed in cold blood, where they tortured to death. This is simply unacceptable.

The first protest for the rights of the disappeared – that I know of – occurred in Argentina in 1977. A ruthless fascist regime was using disappearances and mass murder to control the population. 14 courageous mothers went public demanding to know what had happened to their loved ones. They became known as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and more than 40 years later many are still protesting – some are in wheel chairs these days but they still turn up. 

We also need to thank members of Sydney’s Bangladeshi community for today’s event. Enforced disappearances and shocking crimes against civil society and those opposed to the government are on the rise in that country. A number of international human rights groups have documented the involvement of the paramilitary group, Rapid Action Battalion along with police, army and security agencies in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Earlier this year UN human rights experts called on the Bangladesh government to end reprisals against human rights defenders and relatives of forcibly disappeared persons for cooperating with international human rights groups and UN agencies.

Recent comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reveal how serious the situation is under the present Bangladeshi government. She spoke about the lack of progress in investigations; and has encouraged the Bangladeshi government to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Bachelet has said the services of her office are available to the Bangladeshi govt to provide advice on how such a body could be designed in line with international standards.

This is where there is a role for the Australian government. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong should urge Bangladesh to follow the advice of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, accept the offer of assistance and invite the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit Bangladesh.

I also acknowledge many significant struggles for the disappeared and their loved ones around the world and I apologise that time limits my comments. I will mention just two. I have visited Sri Lanka and Kashmir and have met with families still searching for their loved ones. I found it heart wrenching.   

In Kashmir pain and grief was etched on the faces of so many I met. It is estimated that more than 10,000 Kashmiris have been taken off the streets and out of their homes as a tactic of the Indian govt to demoralise and and suppress the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.

In Sri Lanka in 2009 tens of thousands of Tamils were killed and disappeared. I pay tribute to the Tamil Mothers of “Disappeared”. They have passed more than 2100 days of continuous public actions to seek truth and justice for their loved ones forcibly disappeared during and after the civil war.

These visits had a huge impact on me. These crimes must stop. We need to give ongoing support to the families of the disappeared. The new Australian government should be a leading global voice for justice for the disappeared, for the perpetrators of these crimes to be held to account and for all nations to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The strength of today is that we stand together for this common endeavour – to end the suffering, the kidnappings, the killings. Let’s take a collective commitment that every year on 30 August we will gather together to fight for the rights of the disappeared and their families. 

Thank you.

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