Disappearing tricks: Caroline Moorehead asks if Amnesty's success in freeing political prisoners has made things worse

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IT IS impossible, in the volatile world of human rights, ever to point directly to cause and effect. But there is little doubt that international publicity can shame governments into releasing the wrongfully imprisoned. Amnesty International's dogged insistence on the power of letterwriting, since its foundation more than 30 years ago, has helped thousands of political prisoners. For example, of the 64 who have appeared on the BBC series on political prisoners over the past five years, 41 are now free.

But has Amnesty done too much? Have liberal, well-meaning Westerners persuaded repressive governments to stop taking people prisoner only for them to start something much worse?

Over the past two years, a singularly unpleasant human rights violation had been spreading steadily across most parts of the world. Countries which once arrested their dissidents no longer do so: they 'disappear' them instead. The distorted syntax has a revolting and ominous ring to it. The question that has now come to haunt human rights campaigners is whether they themselves are not

in some way responsible for this switch in tactic.

It is easy to see why 'disappearance' is so attractive to repressive regimes. Since, in most countries, to 'disappear' is almost certainly to die, it provides a quick solution for disposing of troublemakers, who are taken off to secret detention centres, shot and tipped into unmarked graves. It also saves the time and expense of a trial. Most importantly, it freezes entire families and communities into quiescence and inactivity, in case protest leads to instant disposal of the 'disappeared' person - or to being 'disappeared' themselves. For the families involved, it means prolonged mental torture. Unable to act or mourn, they wait, sometimes for many years, for news that never comes.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel is usually credited with inventing 'disappearance' as a tactic of control and repression in Occupied France in 1942. Under what became known as the 'Night and Fog' decree, he ordered that suspected members of the French resistance be picked up secretly, at night, and shipped off to concentration camps in Germany. What he had rightly perceived was that 'disappearing' people was a far more effective method of sowing terror than killing them.

It took some time for other generals to recognise the terrible beauty of Keitel's idea, but by the mid-1960s the Guatemalan military was busy 'disappearing' troublesome students, lawyers, trade unionists and political opponents. One by one, other Latin American military dictators followed. Argentina, to this day, has the best recorded overview of how a meticulously conducted strategy of 'disappearance' actually works. In the mid-1980s, after the military junta was overthrown, a national commission to investigate the missing thousands was set up. Its report, Nunca Mas (Never Again), makes chilling reading.

But the Latin American dictators, as it turned out, were novices when it came to serious 'disappearing'. The real age of the missing dawned only in the early 1980s. During one anti-Communist drive, Indonesia was able to 'disappear' at least half a million of its citizens. General Suharto, architect of this campaign, far surpassing Keitel in his ambitions, is still in power today. Idi Amin disposed of several hundred thousand Ugandans; Pol Pot, in his 'killing fields', of approximately the same number. Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Morocco all have impressive records. By the end of the 1980s, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was struggling to come to grips with the 'disappeared' of 40 countries. Iraq currently leads the table, with somewhere between 150,000 and 180,000 missing Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Turcomans and Marsh Arabs.

One of the few positive aspects to emerge from the Conference on Human Rights held in June in Vienna was the coming together of more than 2,000 non-governmental organisations from all over the world. While the official meeting halls were packed with government officials from 183 countries, bickering over the nuances of 'universality' and 'Western bourgeois rights', the corridors were filled with Free Papuans, Tibetans, East Timorese and Aborigines, eager to meet each other and forge links. No groups benefited more from these encounters than the relatives of the 'disappeared', for in most countries in which 'disappearance' has become an established part of political repression the families of the missing have been banding together to protest, campaign and mourn.

Among these are a number of children of men and women thought to be politically subversive and 'disappeared' by President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines - and, to a lesser extent, by Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. Of 1,500 Filipinos who have vanished in the past decade, only 16 have reappeared. Last month, a group of these children, aged between 13 and 19, came to Britain as part of a European tour, performing a series of musical plays about 'disappearance'. The things they say about what it feels like to have a parent 'disappear' are instructive, for the powerfully silencing effects of 'disappearances' have meant that there is as yet very little research on the subject.

The Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances was born at a party. In 1989, in an effort to bring comfort to the families of the victims of Filipino human rights violations, a party was given for their children. It soon became apparent that a small group of them refused to talk or mix. When asked, each was found to be the child of a 'disappeared' person. Out of this grew a group, a theatre company and a campaign, as well as some interesting facts.

Most of these children, it turned out, were in some kind of trouble - on drugs, drinking or petty thieving. What was more, the very word 'disappearance' was taboo in their homes, and their families, paralysed and helpless, were falling apart. Each child said that they felt personally responsible for their parent's 'disappearance', one because his father had gone out to get him some bread and not returned, another because he had left his father alone and gone to a party and come back to find the house empty. One seven-year-old said that he could have saved his father, had he not dropped the gun he had gone to fetch. Out of their shared experiences, the travelling theatre group and the encounters in Vienna, there is now talk of starting a world alliance of the relatives of the 'disappeared'.

The traditional Amnesty letterwriting campaigns can still bring great rewards. Take the case of Mochtar el Incha, a Tuareg from Niger who, in 1992, was appointed Prefect of Agades. As relations between Niger's government and the Tuareg, whose herds graze the southern edges of the Sahara, soured, a round-up of prominent Tuareg leaders took place. Mochtar el Incha was one of the first to be arrested.

Six months later, he was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and his story became one of those chosen for the 1993 BBC series on political prisoners. Within weeks, 6,000 courteously phrased letters asking for his release had been delivered to Niger's Minister of the Interior; Mochtar el Incha himself received 780. He was set free.

But the question for the future is whether there will be very many Mochtar el Inchas to write letters about. Since human rights reporting remains, for all the new technology, spasmodic, only now is it becoming possible to see how rapidly and terrifyingly 'disappearances' are taking hold. How many people have vanished since Guatemala set the fashion? One million? Three million? How many more are being 'disappeared' at this very moment? The words 'prisoners of conscience' had a reassuring sound to them - there was, after all, something that could be done on their behalf. The word 'disappearances' has an altogether grimmer resonance.

'Human rights, human wrongs', a new series replacing the prisoner of conscience programmes, begins on BBC2 at 9.35pm tonight. 'Disappearances', narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is at 8.20pm on Monday.

(Photograph omitted)

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