In Guatemala in 1996 things were looking up, finally.
I was there just as the government signed a historic peace accord with rebels, ending years of civil war that had resulted in thousands of civilian deaths--to say nothing of the combatants.
But as awful as those deaths were, I sympathized even more with the families I met whose loved ones simply vanished into thin air. No record of what happened to them, and no bodies. All they were left with were bulletin boards of old photos of their kids and husbands.
These were almost always politically motivated kidnappings, an act that has come to be known in the human-rights community as "disappearing" one's opponents. And it was a popular tactic all across Latin America in the 70's and 80's among Communists and Capitalists alike. Argentina's government used to actually fly its disappeared miles out over the open ocean. And then from about 10,000 feet up, they would push people -- alive -- out the door of the aircraft.
Some of the prime targets of disappearing were (and in places still are) journalists. If you're interested in free-press issues globally, this should be a huge concern for you. It's been proven that it's hard to write a story when your reporter has gone missing.
So, when "disappearing" has such an awful history right in our own geopolitical back yard, you'd think it would be a cinch that the U.S. government would support a treaty banning this activity.
USA TODAY has an article this morning describing how the US government in fact refused, along with several other Western governments, to sign this treaty on January 31.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called the treaty an important step both in preventing injustices common years ago and barring newer abuses that often fall through regulatory loopholes.
Arbour said the United States had expressed "reservations" about parts of the text, but declined to elaborate, and she urged U.S. officials to sign and ratify it. She noted that America often backs activities of the UNHCR without formally signing on to them.
She called the treaty "a message to all modern-day authorities committed to the fight against terrorism" that some past tactics are now "not acceptable, in a very explicit way."
The reason the U.S. didn't sign this treaty is simple. Friends, it's hard to fight terrorists without using a little CIA-sponsored kidnapping now and then. Gotta break a few eggs if you're gonna make omelets, you know?
In other words, we are disappearing people, but it's tolerated for now because the threat to our security is so grave. By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. is pushing people out of airplanes alive, but let's be honest and admit that we can rationalize a lot when it's our own skin on the line.
We can sit back and judge Argentina and Guatemala for their atrocious behavior but they were in fact only fighting against factions they had defined as terrorists, too.
By the way, Argentina has come clean about and abandoned its use of disappearances, and was one of the primary supporters and signers of the UN treaty. Maybe we don't hold the moral high ground on this issue anymore.