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Missing persons

11-04-2002 Statement

58th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – Agenda item 11 - 11 April 2003 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross is grateful for this opportunity to share its concerns about a fundamental aspect of international humanitarian law and human rights, namely the right of families to know what has happened to relatives of whom they have no news because of a situation of armed conflict or internal violence.

The ICRC must unfortunately make the following observations.

The absence of news about a loved one’s fate is a tragic reality for countless families in all situations of armed conflict or internal violence, one that often continues for many years after the conflict is over. Not only is this deeply distressing for the families, it can also undermine the process of peace and reconciliation.

Acting on the basis of the mandate conferred on it by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols and of its right of initiative, the ICRC aims to prevent all disappearances, to restore family ties when they have been broken, and to ascertain the whereabouts of people of whom their families have no news.

Yet in many of the contexts in which it works, the ICRC is unable to fulfil its mandate for lack of sufficient political will on the part of the authorities or parties concerned.

The ICRC is not always able to establish a network for the exchange of family news in regions affected by conflict. Some regions are inaccessible, and the people living there cut off from their next-of-kin who live elsewhere; as time passes, they become missing persons to their relatives.

The ICRC does not have access to all detainees and it is not given all the information available on them. Thousands of people are held without contact with the outside world; for their families, they are missing persons.

By the same token, the information provided on deaths, whether of those killed in combat, lying dead in the rubble of their homes or summarily executed, is not always complete; the relatives of the dead live in the false hope that they will one day reappear.

In the face of these observations, the ICRC resolved to launch a process of reflection with all those concerned on the tragic plight of those who go missing during armed conflicts or situations of internal violence.

It decided to conduct the process in two stages. During the first stage, workshops bringing together governmental and/or non-governmental experts are being organized on a number of topics relating to the issue of disappearances. They are intended to help clarify needs and the means of meeting them and to define recommendations and the best operational practices to be implemented. These workshops will take place between May and September 2002.

During the second stage, the ICRC plans to hold an international conference of governmental and non-governmental experts whom it will ask to examine the work accomplished during the first stage. The conference will be held in Geneva from 19 to 21 February 2003.

It is the ICRC’s wish that the outcome of the conference be of direct use to the political and humanitarian players working in the field in situations of armed conflict or internal violence. It is also intended to further government efforts to develop international law, and to promote the prevention and settlement of conflicts.

In conclusion, as a neutral and independent intermediary in situations of armed conflict and internal violence, the ICRC is determined to pursue and develop its activiti es so as both to prevent disappearances and enable families to learn the fate of their relatives.

It wishes to position this concern high on the agenda of the protagonists involved, be they government officials, the United Nations or non-governmental organizations. It is essential to put a stop to disappearances and to obtain respect for the family’s right to know, a right recognized by the entire international community.

Madam Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the ICRC, I thank you for your trust and support.