Message from the ICMP Director General Kathryne Bomberger on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared

Kathryne Bomberger speaks at the ICMP convention in The Hague, Netherlands.
Kathryne Bomberger speaks at the ICMP convention in The Hague, Netherlands.

Declaration “On the Role of the State in Addressing the Issue of Persons Missing as a Consequence of Armed Conflicts and Human Rights Abuses”

Around the world there are millions of reported cases of missing 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. Yet the issue is a silent one.

Tomorrow in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the eve of the International Day of the Disappeared, the heads of state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia will mark an historic occasion.  They will become the first signatories of a Declaration “On the Role of the State in Addressing the Issue of Persons Missing as a Consequence of Armed Conflict and Human Rights Abuses.”

The Declaration seeks to highlight the primary responsibility of State authorities in addressing the issue of the missing and the need to ensure that from now on the mechanisms and methods employed to locate the missing and investigate disappearances conform to human rights standards and rule of law principles. It also seeks to ensure that the rights of family members of the missing are upheld at all times.

This is a historic occasion because even though the tragedy of missing persons is as old as mankind, there is a very limited understanding of the diverse nature and major impact of this global problem. Furthermore, there are few comprehensive and reliable statistics regarding the number of persons who go missing throughout the world as a result of trafficking, drug related violence and migration. Even the numbers of persons missing as a result of armed conflict and human rights abuses, which are more intensively monitored, are difficult to verify, given the reluctance of most states to deal honestly and effectively with this issue.

However, during the last two decades there has been a striking evolution in the manner in which the issue of the missing is addressed, particularly following conflict and disasters. There has also been a corresponding rise in awareness of the need for a concerted international response to the worldwide challenge of missing persons.

Recent advances have been propelled by international efforts to foster the development of peaceful states through transitional justice and rule of law strategies that attempt to redress the legacy of violent conflict and massive human rights abuses. Such strategies have had resonance in cases of persons missing as a result of 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 dedicated databases have made it possible to locate and identify missing persons with a level of efficiency and certainty that was not previously possible.

These advances are quantifiable. More persons have been accounted for who went missing during recent conflicts and disasters than was the case decades ago. The conflicts that took place in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s 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, the majority of those 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 a further 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 periods of conflict and systematic human rights abuses, and on societies that are coming to terms with large-scale disasters. This has been the case, for example in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. In each of these instances, states have assumed ownership of the process, efforts have been made to investigate cases properly and to hold perpetrators to account, civil has been actively engaged and modern forensic methods, including DNA matching, have been used.

These factors have also had a significant bearing on criminal trials, strengthening the rule of law and according relatives of the missing not only the right to know the fate and circumstances of the missing, but the means to seek justice and reparations.

The Declaration, which was created by ICMP in consultation with the first signatory states, seeks to carry these principles forward. It is an open instrument that other states are encouraged to join. Tomorrow’s signing ceremony marks a tangible and historic turning point regarding how the issue of the missing will be dealt with from now on.

Sarajevo, 28 August, 2014