A collection of renowned practitioners gathered in Belfast to discuss the global legacies and implications of enforced disappearance, with the Centre for the Study of Violence’s Professor Brad Evans among them.

Hosted by the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University, “The Disappeared: Addressing the Legacies and Challenges of Confronting Human Disappearance” was the first international conference of its kind.

The conference, which took place on the 10 and 11 of June 2024, brought together respected voices from the policy sector, academia and the world of arts. Its aim was to centre disappearance studies as a new core research field in politics, international relations and legal studies and in conflict, violence and peace-related programmes.

Taking the conversation forward

Building on from the “State of Disappearance” exhibition and “Living With Disappearance” workshop, which were both held in Bristol last year, the international gathering was the brainchild of Professor Brad Evans and Professor Roddy Brett. Brad is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence at the University of Bath and Roddy is the Director-elect of The Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol. They were part of an executive committee that also featured academics from Queens and the University of Notre Dame.

​With the participation of those affected by disappearance - as well as policymakers, practitioners and scholars - the conference considered historical understandings and experiences alongside new ethical and conceptual frameworks, research agendas and policy responses with the objective of launching Disappearance Studies as a sub-field of policy-relevant research and practice in its own right.

Real-world stories of disappearance

The conference opened with the powerful testimony of Dympna Kerr in conversation with Sandra Peake of the Wave Trauma Centre in Belfast. Dympna is still searching for her brother Columba McVeigh, who was only 19-years-old when he was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1975. A stark reminder of the global nature of the problem, his remains have never been found.

This was followed by an equally emotive discussion between Elizabeth Santander and Josefina Echavarria Alvarez of Notre Dame University, who was also part of the organising committee. A political exile now living in the United Kingdom, Elizabeth’s husband was disappeared in the 1980s by the Colombian state. In Colombia, the government’s victims’ unit has registered more than 45,000 victims dating back to the 1970s, although another government database puts the number of missing above 110,000.

When commenting on the impetus behind the conference, Brad and Roddy noted: “Disappearance is arguably the most horrific and extreme form of violence. It is also a global problem, which continues to destroy the lives of millions of people. And yet in academia it tends to appear as a lesser concerned field to other areas of political violence such as genocide and terrorism. Our intention was to begin a conversation, which brought multiple approaches together in order to redress this.”

Highlighting the importance of multiple approaches, many participants and delegates heard an array of discussions that opened critical discussion on the legal, political, technological, social, medical and artistic challenges the issue of disappearance presents and what solutions can be considered. The conference closed with a keynote lecture from Carlos Beristain, a former Truth Commissioner in Colombia and member of the group of experts on Disappearance in Mexico who spoke of his experiences representing families in their search for the missing and the fight for justice.

Next steps

Having formed a working group tasked with pushing forward new agenda for the inaugurated field of Disappearance Studies, the next stages will include the publication of an edited volume with the journal The Philosopher in the Autumn and the launch of the first dedicated Journal of Disappearance Studies set for 2025. A series of events are also being planned for June next year. As Brad and Roddy added, “we have been overwhelmed by the positive response this initiative has garnered. Given the nature of the problem, the explicit focus on Disappearance Studies is long overdue.”

The Inaugural conference for Disappearance Studies was officially partnered by The Centre for the Study of Violence; The University of Bath; The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast; The Clingen Family Center for the Study of Modern Ireland, University of Notre Dame; The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame; and The Global Insecurities Centre, The University of Bristol.