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When citizens disappear at the hand of the state

Enforced disappearances as an international human rights crime can be traced back to the Nuremberg trials in Germany following World War II.

A human rights activist taking part in a performance during a rally in support of Ukrainian prisoners in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv.
A human rights activist taking part in a performance during a rally in support of Ukrainian prisoners in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv.
REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

I recently finished a book about the Nazi occupation in France and it made me think about the connections between the “Night and Fog” operations during the Holocaust and the horrors today in Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that “Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia — often to isolated regions in the Far East,” as reported in Politico.

Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished during conflicts or periods of repression in at least 85 countries around the world.

These enforced disappearances are secret abductions by a state or a political party, or their proxies, with a refusal to acknowledge the person’s whereabouts and condition. The abducted person becomes a ghost, invisible, never heard from again.

Enforced disappearances as an international human rights crime can be traced back to the Nuremberg trials in Germany following World War II. The Nuremberg ruling was based on a Nazi decree of 1941 known as Nacht und Nebel, or NN, Night and Fog, a phrase taken from the opera “The Gold of the Rhine” by Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer.

Night and Fog was a terror campaign directed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. It legally authorized German authorities to abduct individuals throughout Nazi-occupied western Europe, particularly France, for “endangering German security” and to bring them to Germany by night and fog, invisibly, so that they would vanish without a trace. The intent was to terrorize the population through state-organized enforced disappearances.

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After the war, Keitel was indicted by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and found guilty on all counts: crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, criminal conspiracy and war crimes. He was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1946.

Most of the case against him was based on his authorization for Night and Fog. The Nuremberg tribunal designated enforced disappearances as both a crime against humanity and a war crime.

After the Nuremberg trials, the crime of enforced disappearances became further defined. The 1949 Geneva Conventions detailed obligations for parties in international armed conflicts to take all measures to elucidate the fate of and to search for missing persons and to record all information.

Enforced disappearances were included and defined in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity.

In 2010 the United Nations passed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, known as the CED. The CED provides for the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance and allows victims’ families to seek reparations and truth about the fate of their loved ones.

Yet this crime persists because it creates such widespread fear and intimidation. People are terrified of suddenly being taken — from their homes, while walking down the street, grabbed off a bus, kidnapped at work, and never seen again.

Russian authorities, Secretary of State Blinken said, “are deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents and abducting others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the number taken could be as high as 2 million people. “All these deported people are deprived of communication, their documents are taken from them, they are intimidated, and they are dispersed to remote areas of Russia.”

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands has deployed its largest-ever team of detectives to assist in the criminal investigations.

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy
Currently, a campaign of the International Coalition against Enforced Disappearances is working toward universal ratification of the UN CED. To date, only 68 of 193 nations of the world have ratified the Convention. Ukraine is among the ratifying nations; the U.S. is not.

The United Nations considers this crime so heinous that it has set aside a day to recommit to eliminating it. Every Aug. 30 is International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an adjunct professor of law.