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Missing persons: Questions and answers

28-08-2012 FAQ

When people disappear in connection with armed conflict or other violence, their relatives endure terrible suffering as they struggle to find out what happened. More needs to be done to help the families of missing persons. On 30 August, the International Day of the Disappeared, the ICRC is highlighting their situation, and explaining what it is doing to help.

What is a missing person?

By missing persons, we generally mean individuals of whom their families have no news and/or who, on the basis of reliable information, have been reported missing as a result of an armed conflict – international or non-international – or of internal violence, internal disturbances or any other situation that might require action by a neutral and independent body (ICRC Missing Persons Handbook for Parliamentarians (2009)).

Where is the ICRC working on the missing persons issue?

The ICRC is currently working on the missing persons issue in dozens of countries and contexts, including the following:

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, East Timor, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Russian Federation, Senegal, Serbia (Kosovo), Sri Lanka, Uganda, disappearances relating to the Western Sahara conflict.

The legal framework

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006), which entered into force for States Parties in 2010, strengthens efforts to address the five priority areas for action in response to the problem of disappearances, identified during the International Conference of Governmental and Non-Governmental Experts on missing persons, held at Geneva from 19 to 21 February 2003 at the invitation of the ICRC. These five areas, which have also been taken up by other international agencies, are:

I. Prevention of disappearances
II. Clarification of the fate of persons unaccounted for
III. Information management and the processing of files on persons unaccounted for
IV. Management of human remains and of information on the dead
V. Support for the families of persons unaccounted for

Full details can be found in ICRC Report: The Missing and their families

As at 23 August 2012, there were only 34 parties to the treaty and 91 signatories. States have an obligation to account for the missing all around the world. One step towards fulfilling this obligation consists in incorporating in national legislation the provisions of international humanitarian law that relate to missing persons. The ICRC is willing to assist States in this process.

The ICRC recommends that States that have not already done so consult the ICRC's Guiding principles / Model Law on the missing as well as Missing Persons: a handbook for parliamentarians.


Photos

Azerbaijan. A mother with the ID card of her missing son. 

Azerbaijan. A mother with the ID card of her missing son.
© ICRC / G. Guliyeva / v-p-az-e-00255

Peru, Ayacucho. Families try to identifiy the clothes of their missing relatives.  

Peru, Ayacucho. Families try to identifiy the clothes of their missing relatives.
© ICRC / J. Carhuallanqui / v-p-pe-e-00580

Nepal. Wives and mothers of missing persons with their families during a commemoration ceremony for their missing relatives. 

Nepal. Wives and mothers of missing persons with their families during a commemoration ceremony for their missing relatives.
© ICRC / V. Sharma / v-p-np-e-00242