Jennifer Heath and Ashraf Zahedi, editors

Book of the Disappeared: The Quest for Transnational Justice

University of Michigan Press, 2023

349 pages

$39.95 (open-access e-book) 

Reviewed by Haley Eazor

Book of the Disappeared: The Quest for Transnational Justice maps threads of political absence across global scales. From Iraq, which currently faces the highest number of missing people, to the genocide of the Rohingya, this necessary and timely book confronts the increasingly normalized political methods of disappearing people. Disappearance’s “systematic and repeated nature” is historical; yet its forming of a “general state of anguish, insecurity, and fear is a recent phenomenon,” the Inter-American Court of Human Rights writes in 1988. In figuring and animating absence, Book of the Disappeared reclaims and seeks justice for the disappeared, pushing against governing bodies seeking to erase. How do we make something—laws, ratifications, kin—of the testimony, the bones, the paper trails left behind? What forms of dissent can emerge from the decay, aftermaths, and traces of the disappeared? These are questions “scholars, practitioners, and artists” ask in their essays and artwork throughout Book of the Disappeared. The works move through lands, peoples, and scholarly, artistic, and legal discourses throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as methods of greeting and grieving the disappeared. As Heath and Zahedi write in the introduction, the book aims “to help to elucidate and confront the roles and inactions that have empowered perpetrators, as well as amplify, wherever possible, the voices of survivors.” This book contributes avenues for attending to the implications and impacts of absence in transnational justice and human rights discourses.

The first piece included is a visual excerpt from the open-access digital archive “Index of the Disappeared.” The shared prepositional phrase, “of the disappeared,” draws parallels between the two works—both anthologize the “absent presence” of the disappeared. At the same time, “Index” functions as a conceptual framework for Book of the Disappeared and as a work in its own right: here, data and art become modes to political dissent. A collaborative and ongoing project by artists Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani, “Index of the Disappeared” amasses data on the disappeared through “official documents, secondary literature, and personal narratives.” Ganesh and Ghani began “Index” in 2004 with the goal of documenting post-9/11 disappearances. Routinely updated today, this digital archive “traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions, and detentions on an unprecedented scale.” This unprecedented scale requires recording; beginning here allows us to read the works included in Book as similarly anthologizing absence in the name of documenting, archiving, and, ultimately, dissenting. Placing these two in conversation, Book of the Disappearedcontinues to create and evolve a genealogy of historical, present, and future disappearances. 

While not divided into sections, the book’s global and interdisciplinary approach to disappearance is twofold—theoretical and practical applications mark disappearance as a collective issue of personhood in human rights and social justice discourses. The term ‘disappearance’ takes on a myriad of meanings depending on a state’s ratifications, interpretations, and justifications. For example, Dulitzky writes in “Latin America’s Contribution to the Development of Institutional Responses to Enforced Disappearance” that the term ‘enforced disappearance’ encompasses everything from “kidnappings by drug cartels in Mexico, to the detention in ‘black holes’ of alleged persons involved in terrorism by the CIA [ . . . ] to persons detained in political prison camps in North Korea, those who disappeared in Bosnia [ . . . ] or those abducted by the death squads in El Salvador.” Despite their distinctly different contexts, timelines, and methods of disappearing, all qualify disappearance as a human rights violation.Included authors and artists such as Nancy Maron, Dallas Mazoori and Stefan Schmitt, and Melvin Edwards (to name a few) trace different and often localized ways of disappearing people, while authors like Vasuki Nesiah, Soren Blau, and Amrita Kapurexplore the categorical and definitional parameters and impedances of these terms in international affairs. This exploration is guided by the UN’s 2010 official recognition of enforced disappearance as a war crime, defining it as “the arrest, detention, abduction, or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” And the impacts of enforced disappearance echo: testimonies, numbers, unmarked graves, and grieving families (and the lack of closure available to them). As Dirk Adriaensens informs us: while countries such as Albania, Colombia, France, Denmark, Ukraine, and Nigeria (to name a few) have signed and ratified the UN’s treaty, the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, and many others have not signed or ratified.The first human rights group, as Dulitzky details, formed around the question of disappearance: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) formed in 1977 to appeal for the identification of the (approximately) thirty thousand disappeared in Argentina. This included “their own unarmed, non-combatant children or grandchildren, many of whom were stolen as infants and given for adoption to members of the junta.” The precarious conditions of disappearance have become the everyday for some: the Cold War and the War on Terror serve as two example doctrines by which the US could “disappear” suspicious people (explored by Zahedi in “Politics of Silence and Denial” and with Heath in the introduction). Thanks to extraordinary rendition, which David Weissbrodt writes in his article titled “Extraordinary Rendition” is a “hybrid human rights violation,” enforced disappearance is a tool to avoid accountability and consequences. In “Iraq: Enforced Disappearance as a Tool of War,” Adriaensens writes that extraordinary rendition 

protects “the State from allegations of having committed such atrocities.” Diverting attention and blame, many nations—including the US—utilize this tool to avoid habeas corpus

What, in this exposition of injustice, does Book of the Disappeared concretely seek? The subtitle, “The Quest for Transnational Justice,” begins this journey towards imagining possibilities of restoring and healing. Hilmi M. Zawati’s “Retributive or Restorative Justice” and Kayhan Irani’s “Story as Portal” begin to speak to these possibilities. Transnational justice refers to the legal and nonlegal societal responses and methods of dissent when faced with a government’s disregard for human rights. The term transnational conceptualizes justice across national borders—to find new relations and ways of imagining dissent that aid in making enforced disappearance visible and actionable. Las Madres serve as the prime example: these Argentinian mothers inspired mothers (and other kin) from countries such as Turkey and Iran to come together to demand justice. An included excerpt from Hatidza Hren, a Bosnian Muslim woman searching for her disappeared husband, reads: “I will recognize his bones.” This search for justice is perpetual and unending, both historical and future-bound. Heath and Zahedi’s titular diction (“quest” and “justice”) guides the reader towards this impressionable futurity: a quest is both a journey and a seeking, a quest(ion) that requires crossing into unknown and (sometimes unknowable) spaces. What Book of the Disappeared ultimately seeks is this question of justice: how do we make legible and judgeable the extrajudicial and “arbitrary deprivation of right to life” that is enforced disappearance?