The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances




The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)

by: Mary Aileen D. Bacalso


Implanting the seeds of the federation The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) was conceived. It was not just born overnight. Its conception was facilitated by representatives of organizations concerned on disappearances from various parts of the world - the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) in the Philippines; the Organization of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD) in Sri Lanka; the ADHOC in Cambodia; the Khulumani Support Group in South Africa; the Hijos in Argentina and the Asociacion Pro Busqueda de Ninos Y Ninas Desaparecidos in El Salvador. They were in the Philippines during the 1997 commemoration by FIND of the International Week of the Disappeared (IWD). The group then called itself as the International Movement For the Disappeared. AFAD's conception underwent a not-so-easy process. FIND was assigned to coordinate the efforts to form an Asian group. After the Manila event, the first reunion of the above- mentioned International Movement for the Disappeared was supposed to be held in August of the same year on the occasion of the 53rd session of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. With the recommendation of Linking Solidarity and the visit of FEDEFAM's Executive Director, Sr. Maria del Carmen Pariente to FIND, the international movement for the disappeared agreed to, instead, attend the 14th Congress of FEDEFAM held in November 1997 in Mexico. The process of getting a visa to enter Mexico was like a camel entering the eye of a needle. Amidst such difficulties FIND, of all the other organizations in South Africa, Asia and Europe, was the only organization who made it FEDEFAM's 14th Congress. Fr. Jon de Cortina, S.J., who attended the May 1997 IWD commemoration in Manila and who attended FEDEFAM's 14th Congress in Mexico, introduced FIND to FEDEFAM. Significant to note is the fact that he was the one who really urged FIND and OPFMD to facilitate the formation of an Asian group. His introduction, and of course, the visit in August 1997 of Sr. Maria del Carmen Pariente to FIND were instrumental in establishing FIND's linkage with this Latin American federation. For FIND, this was significant considering that it was assigned to coordinate the formation of the Asian group which necessarily had to link with FEDEFAM. Needless to say, FIND was inspired by the Latin American women who attended the 14th Congress of FEDEFAM. Furthermore, the visit of FIND representatives to the Asociacion Pro Busqueda de Ninos Y Ninas Desaparecidos and to the parishioners of Fr. Jon de Cortina in the once militarized area of Chalatenango, El Salvador were morally enriching . After the trip to Latin America, FIND immediately worked out on the holding of a preparatory meeting for the launching of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. The preparatory meeting, held in Sri Lanka in March 1998, was supposed to be attended also by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in the disputed state of the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, but inevitable circumstances prevented the latter from attending. Nevertheless, the huge number of families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka was instrumental in garnering a grand success in conceptualizing the then dreamed of Asian group. FIND and OPFMD succeeded in gradually nourishing the seeds implanted in May 1997 by preparing the orientation paper of the Asian group. From March to early June 1998, coordination work made by FIND with other organizations in Asia and Latin America was intensified in preparation for the launching. This is not to mention the rest of the preparations for the series of activities during that week-long commemoration. The not-so-stable financial situation of FIND did not deter it from realizing the dream for the formation of the Asian group. Despite the limited time, FIND was able to facilitate the solicitation of donations that could cover the travel expenses of international guests. The sprouting of the seeds... A couple of years have passed since the 1997 commemoration of the International Week of the Disappeared. The dream for a regional cooperation among organizations in Asia is now a reality, as organizationally expressed in the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD). Historically launched in Manila, Philippines, AFAD saw the light of day on June 4, 1998. The launching was graced by the President of FEDEFAM, Yanette Bautista and FEDEFAM Support Group member, Federico Kircher and attended by FIND members in Manila and Central Luzon as well as representatives of human rights organizations. AFAD is presently composed of four core group members from the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND)- Philippines; Organization of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD)-Sri Lanka; Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and the KontraS of Indonesia. Urged by the need to unite regionally for a stronger impact and inspired by the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees (FEDEFAM), these organizations of families of the disappeared in Asia started with very meager resources and struggled to unite as a regional federation. The Relatives Committee of May 1992 Heroes, an organization of families of the disappeared in Thailand, who attended, together with a FIND representative, Louie Crismo, in a commemoration event of the May 18 massacre in South Korea, is now applying for membership in AFAD. Strengthening its roots... On February 22 to March 1, 1999, AFAD had to have an internal meeting to assess its gains since its birth and to look forward towards the future. The group had collectively reviewed AFAD's work. The assessment spoke of modest achievements considering the very limited resources - human and material, not to mention the lack of experience in running a federation. With its own internal efforts, AFAD was able to project itself, both in the countries where the members are based as well as in the international scene. Its official statements, manual of operations and joint activities with FEDEFAM contributed to this. The fact that, at the very early stage, it was able to get some funding from Hivos, an agency in The Netherlands, is a source of strength. Maximizing joint activities for internal strengthening, AFAD is gradually strengthening its roots. The most concrete manifestation of internal strengthening is the core group meeting held in Sri Lanka on February 22-March 1, 1999. After assessing its performance, the AFAD core group firmed up the federation's basic documents, e.g. plans from March 1999 to May 2000; membership guidelines; finance policies; interim Constitution and By-Laws; One Year Budget. All these papers are AFAD's common bases of unity which would serve as guide for all actions in the future. The budding regional federation ... One of the major plans of AFAD for the year was the holding of the joint commemoration of the International Week of the Disappeared held again in Sri Lanka on May 23-30, 1999. Neither financial limitations nor lack of external support in the local level hindered the OPFMD from realizing that the joint IWD commemoration this year would be in Sri Lanka. Less than a month before the holding of the activity, funding was made available through the financial support of CAFOD, a funding agency based in London. Everything was all set for the commemoration. Asian delegates from both the Philippines and Indonesia participated. From the Philippines, Daisy Valerio, FIND's Secretary-General, acted as the coordinator. Again, despite sincere attempts for the APDP to be represented, the security situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir hindered the organization from being present. Also, it was not possible for organizations from other continents to be represented. But with the preparedness shown by the host organization, the federation was able to banner both local and regional concerns. The whole event was a grand success. As intended, it developed deep solidarity among families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka and deepened AFAD's understanding of the struggles of the Sri Lankan people; served as a venue for lobbying the Sri Lankan government to concretely respond to this alarming phenomenon; developed partnerships with religious groups in Sri Lanka; further projected the regional phenomenon of involuntary disappearances and further projected the regional and international phenomena of involuntary disappearances. Since FIND shared some principles of people's management and facilitated the review of plans, the event, nevertheless, served as a venue for core group consolidation.


Inter-continental Joint Intervention at the 55th session of the UNWGEID September 28-October 1, 1998, Geneva, Switzerland - After three months since its launching, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) participated in an inter- continental joint intervention on the 55th session of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID). From Latin America, present were: Yanette Bautista, FEDEFAM President, Federico Kircher; FEDEFAM Support Group Member; Sr. Maria del Carmen Pariente, FEDEFAM Executive Director; Yolima Quintero from ASFADDES, a group in Colombia and Fr. Jon de Cortina from El Salvador. From Asia, present were Mary Aileen D. Bacalso from FIND; Chandra Peiris and Abeyseela from OPFMD; Mugiyanto and two other members from KontraS. Again, the security situation in Kashmir hindered the representative of APDP to attend. Thus, for the first time, an Asian delegation, together with FEDEFAM, faced the UNWGEID. The Working Group, itself, acknowledged the newly-formed Asian federation, which, the former said, could help itself in its work. From Algeria was Mohammed Tahri, a lawyer who represented the Ligue Algerienne Pour la Defense Des Droits de L'Homme (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights). During this session, in a separate meeting apart from the joint intervention with FEDEFAM before the UNWGEID, each of the representatives of the AFAD member organizations was able to present a specific country situation regarding involuntary disappearances. The representative of FIND, being at the same time, the coordinator of the Asian federation, presented, not only the Philippine situation, but also a bird's eye view of the over-all Asian situation. The open forum portion clarified matters on specific country problems vis-a-vis disappearances. On the part of the Philippines, the matter on compensation which, the Philippine government, accordingly boasted to have been giving, was clarified. Also, on the part of Indonesia, it was made clear that KontraS is not an underground organization, but an open one, the birth of which was brought about by the downfall of Suharto. More importantly, the intervention of OPFMD is believed to have influenced the UNWGEID's planned third visit to Sri Lanka in October this year. An internal meeting of FEDEFAM, AFAD and Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights enabled the participants to have a general overview of the international phenomenon of involuntary disappearances. One limitation was time constraint which hindered the sharing of particular responses of organizations in view of the situation. A detailed planning on a bigger inter-continental forum, which then was planned to be held in April during the 55th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights and an evaluation of the whole thing were conducted. The participants were generally satisfied with this first ever joint oral intervention conducted by FEDEFAM, AFAD and the human rights group in Algeria. Determined to continue international cooperation, the group culminated the activity with a resolve to prepare for the bigger inter-continental forum to be held in April 1999 on the occasion of the 55th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Preparations would entail much work. Resources were still not available. Coordination work was crucial to a successful forum. The program was still to be refined based on initial suggestions. New as it was, yet the group believed that the commonality of the problem would overcome whatever difficulties it may encounter along the way. The Inter-Continental Forum On the Occasion of the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights The bigger inter-continental forum was co-sponsored by FEDEFAM and AFAD. Much work, however, was done by FEDEFAM, being the more established federation. But AFAD had to do its own internal coordination with FEDEFAM and among its member organizations. The coordination was smooth, thanks to the electronic mail. Communication between FIND and OPFMD very much improved during this time. However, FIND's coordination with Indonesia and Kashmir was still difficult for different reasons. The financial problem did not deter AFAD's participation to the activity. The funds from Hivos contributed, in no small measure, to AFAD's participation to the inter-continental forum. Some thirty-five participants from various continents attended. The public meeting was conducted on the first day where regional representatives presented the situations of various continents. Inputs on related topics were given by human rights experts. The remaining couple of days were spent for country situations. Each story was distinctly unique. What was particularly touching was the declaration of Alicia Miranda, representative from the Grupo de Apoyo Motuo in Guatemala who said profound words on the matter on compensation: " It is a shame to receive money. They took away from us our loved ones. Because of their disappearance, we have been looking for them. We have to take the responsibility of an adult. We have been deprived of our childhood. We never ever experienced our childhood. " In a nutshell, the different sharings speak of the fact that involuntary disappearances affect a vast population throughout the world. This is especially true in countries which have been affected by internal conflict. In these situations of internal conflict, children, too, have been made to disappear. These disappearances remain unresolved and, in some countries, continue to happen. States, who are perpetrators, do not, in their own volition, prevent disappearances and other forms of human rights violations. These fact could, in itself, very much raise popular awareness. In the search for the disappeared, political will is important in achieving positive outcome. The lack of it renders existing mechanisms insufficient. Habeas corpus, being one of the means to locate the disappeared, is effective in some countries, but not effective in other countries. Justice has not yet been achieved. Thus, there is a need to work for human rights not only locally, but also internationally. Furthermore, inputs on topics related to the UN Draft Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Reparation and Redress and Prevention of Torture further enlightened the participants on the possibilities for concrete victories. With states as perpetrators of disappearances, justice will definitely not be given in a silver platter. It has to be worked out. Thus, proposals for sustaining international cooperation wrapped up the forum. These ran the whole gamut from systematization of documentation to production of a newsletter using the internet to joint international lobbying such as interventions to UN bodies to press for the ratification of the UN Draft Convention on the Protection of All Persons From Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; joint campaigning and facilitation of regional cooperation. In all these, AFAD has a vital role to play. In cooperation with FEDEFAM and Linking Solidarity, AFAD has the potentials of serving as a catalyst for sustaining and bringing to greater heights what has been started. After all, other organizations look up to its example of forging regional cooperation, which is hoped to be multiplied a hundredfold in the not-so-distant future.


Setting up a federation is not easy. But this is imperative amidst the alarming phenomenon of disappearances in the Asian region which necessitates a strong impact both in the regional as well as international levels. Perceived realities in Asia speak of language and cultural differences, which are exactly the opposite to the reality in Latin America. These should not serve as a barrier, but instead a challenge for learning more from varied experiences in Asia. Another regional particularity as differentiated from that of Latin America is the fact that in many countries, organizations concerned on the same issue have still to be established. It is then the role of AFAD to provide venues for these. FIND, being the coordinator until such time that a formal congress be convened, has a crucial role to play in extending its experiences and in bringing out the best potentials and experiences of the other member organizations of the federation. Notwithstanding its own internal concerns, FIND, as in any other AFAD member organization, has to transcend parochial tendencies, learn from the particularity of the situations and organizational responses of different countries and effect a stronger impact locally, regionally and internationally. In the second half of 1999, AFAD's stress is the consolidation of existing members and reaching out to other organizations in Asia which are interested to join. A seminar on topics that respond to particular and common needs of member organizations as well as potential members shall be conducted within the year. AFAD, in partnership with the Erikka Bautista Foundation based in Germany, is intending that the seminar could serve as a venue for internal strengthening as well as expansion of the federation. Again to be held in Sri Lanka, this will also be a venue for building-up the preparations for the third visit of the UNWGEID to Sri Lanka in October this year. Budding as it is now, the AFAD core group is working towards the creation of a full-blown federation by convening its First Regional Congress to be held in Manila, Philippines during the International Week of the Disappeared in May 2000. All efforts are geared towards this so that AFAD can better respond to the imperatives of the time. All these things may sound grandiose and unreal. But looking back, the federation itself started as a dream. The dream became a reality, obviously, not without collective efforts amidst hardships. And this dream-turned-reality has to blossom forth and bear fruits for the sake of all the desaparecidos and their families. Much remains to be done so that, one day, we shall, indeed, overcome!