Remembering the Missing

Article posted on August 30, 2013
Kathryne Bomberger, ICMP Director General

Kathryne Bomberger, ICMP Director General

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.

When persons go missing as a result of state actions, these persons can be regarded as missing as a consequence of the crime of enforced disappearance. In such cases, uncertainty about the fate of missing persons can obstruct peace processes, the full implementation of the rule of law and can weaken confidence in democratic and political institutions. Effective measures to address these types of disappearances may also help prevent future atrocities.

The 30th of August is increasingly recognized throughout the world as the International Day of the Disappeared. On this day families of persons who have missing loved ones from armed conflicts and violations of human rights seek to draw attention to this issue and to ensure that authorities uphold the legal rights of the families of the disappeared to know the fate and whereabouts of a missing loved one. They speak on behalf of their missing relatives who have no voice with which to demand truth and justice.

The initiative to commemorate this day was taken by the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, which was founded in 1981 in Costa Rica and has since been recognized globally. Compared to 1981 when the initiative to mark the international day of the disappeared was first launched, there is now a striking difference in how the issue of the missing has been addressed.

These recent advances have been largely propelled by broader movements in the world to build peaceful 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 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 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.

Today ICMP joins hundreds of thousands of families of missing persons from the countries of the Western Balkans, as well as Cyprus, Iraq, Spain, Lebanon, Kuwait, Libya, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Nepal, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Algeria, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Yemen, Somalia, South Africa and many other countries around the world in paying tribute to missing persons. In doing so, ICMP joins hundreds of thousands of families of missing persons in raising awareness about this global issue, whose resolution is not only important to provide a sense of closure for individual families of the missing, but for the implementation of the rule of law and the establishment of peace and justice.

ICMP would also like to take this opportunity to announce that it will hold an international conference entitled: “The Missing: An Agenda for the Future”, between Tuesday 29th October and Friday 1st November 2013 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands.

ICMP’s international conference will provide a forum for participants representing states, international and non-governmental organizations, victim and survivor groups, the private sector, academia and journalists.

In addition to these, ICMP will bring senior policy makers, human rights organizations, judicial organizations, defense and security organizations, emergency response organizations, specialized ministries and institutes from around the world to present their thoughts on the issue of missing persons.

The ICMP was created at a G-7 Summit in 1996 to work with governments and others to help them locate and account for persons missing from the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia and was later mandated to work globally and to respond to cases of disasters and other causes.

ICMP provides a comprehensive approach to assisting governments. It helps build the institutional infrastructure of afflicted states. It works with civil society to ensure their active and meaningful engagement. It provides technical assistance to governments in locating, recovering and identifying the missing. It supports the work of the judicial sector. As part of its technical assistance, ICMP maintains the world’s largest, most efficient DNA laboratory system dedicated exclusively to identifying missing persons. ICMP is based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Sarajevo, 30 August, 2013
Kathryne Bomberger, ICMP Director General