The Missing: An Agenda for the Future

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is excited to announce its international conference, The Missing: An Agenda for the Future, which will take place on Tuesday 29th October - Friday 1st November 2013 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands.

In the world today there are millions of reported cases of missing and disappeared persons from armed conflict and human rights abuses. In addition, thousands of persons go missing every year as a result of disasters, human trafficking, organized crime and other causes.

During the last two decades there has been a striking evolution in how the issue of the missing has been addressed, particularly following conflict and disasters. The objective of the conference will be to review the dynamics of these advances with a view to exploring how the issue of the missing will be addressed in the future, including global initiatives to locate missing persons for all involuntary reasons.

These recent advances have been largely propelled by broader movements in the world to build peaceful nation-states through transitional justice strategies and rule of law initiatives that attempt to redress the legacy of violent conflict and massive human rights abuses. Such strategies have also had resonance in cases of persons missing from disasters and other causes, where law-based, forensic approaches are becoming the norm. Furthermore, developments in the field of genetics, the use of modern forensic methods and the creation of databases to track missing persons cases have made it possible to locate and identify persons with a level certainty that was not available before.

These advances are also quantifiable. More persons have been accounted for who have gone missing from recent conflicts or disasters, than was the case several decades ago. The conflicts which took place in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s are a case in point. It is estimated that 40,000 persons went missing as a consequence of armed conflict, abuses of human rights and other atrocities. Today, 70 percent of those missing have been accounted for. The mass loss of life following the attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 is another case in point, where, following extensive efforts, over 60 percent of those persons killed have been identified. The unprecedented effort by the world’s police forces to account for persons missing from the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami is another example of the ability to pull together resources on an international level, which resulted in accounting for a significant number of missing.

These advances have had an impact on the development of countries emerging from conflict, or following large-scale disasters. In regions where countries have successfully addressed missing persons cases following conflict, such as, inter alia, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Peru, Argentina, East Timor and South Africa, nations assume ownership for the process, efforts are made to properly investigate cases and to hold perpetrators to account, civil society is actively engaged and modern forensic methods, including DNA, are used. These factors have also had a significant bearing on criminal trials, strengthening the rule of law and allowing relatives of the missing not only the right to know the fate and circumstances of the missing, but enabling them to seek justice and reparations.

In circumstances where persons go missing as a consequence of disasters, law enforcement agencies take the lead and ensure that contemporary approaches, including modern forensic methods are employed in efforts to locate and identify victims. Such efforts are furthermore anchored in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights (Right to life), as well as other relevant international instruments which obligate public authorities to conduct effective investigations even when there is no direct state responsibility for a death, or for a person going missing.

The problem of missing persons does not respect borders, whether persons are missing from conflict, human rights violations, disasters, organized violence or from refugee flows and migration. In this regard, the issue of the missing is increasingly viewed as a global concern, which warrants a structured and sustainable international response, rather than an uncoordinated, ad hoc approach. As a consequence, the role of the international community has also evolved.

This shift in the role of the international community was underpinned again in the 1990’s in relation to violent conflict and human rights abuses with the establishment, inter alia, of the International Criminal Court, the International Tribunal Court for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, as well as other international and hybrid courts. The experiences of the 2004 Tsunami, including the efforts of INTERPOL and others to establish a permanent platform to respond to cases of disasters are also a case in point.

Global initiatives are also being examined to locate missing persons from organized violence and within the population of refugees and migrants. Such initiatives will require improved cooperation between states, including better information sharing and making use of advanced communication and data processing mechanisms.

While these are all encouraging developments, the progress that has been made needs to be analyzed and reviewed as we explore future concepts and ideas regarding how to advance a global response to addressing the missing

The conference will:

  • Bring together participants representing states, international and non-governmental organizations, including victim and survivor groups, the private sector, academia and journalists and others. Participants would represent senior policy makers, human rights organizations, judicial organizations, defense and security organizations, emergency response organizations, specialized ministries and institutes, as well as the media;
  • Be divided into three broad thematic topics, including;
    1. Persons missing from armed conflict and human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances;
    2. Persons missing from disasters, both natural and man-made;
    3. Persons missing from other causes, including, organized violence (drugs, human trafficking, terrorism) and persons missing through migration.
  • Include plenary discussions on crosscutting issues, including, aligning global and national initiatives, building national ownership, prosecutions, creating legal frameworks for survivors, assessing the need for a global capacity, integrating international and national databases and discussing prevention and preparedness;
  • Provide a set of recommendations for a future agenda in addressing the issue of missing persons in all its facets.

ICMP would like to take this opportunity to thank all partners and donors whose support is instrumental in the organization and delivery of this conference. Special thanks are extended to the Host City; The City of the Hague. Funds have been generously provided by the following countries, who are also longstanding donors to other ICMP, including the Czech Republic, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.