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International Conference on the Missing: opening statement

19-02-2003 Statement

by Leonard S. Rubenstein, Executive Director, Physicians for Human Rights

People who are unaccounted for in armed conflicts in recent decades are missing not just by their physical disappearance. They, and families so desperate to know their fate, have been largely missing from the concern of states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and even from international humanitarian and human rights law.

This is not an accident. States, non-state actors, and international organizations have many reasons for ignoring the missing and their families. In some cases, learning the circumstances of people’s disappearance, especially if they have been killed, reveals unpleasant truths about their treatment and sometimes criminal culpability in disappearance or death. In others, attending to the missing and the needs of their families is considered quite secondary to the immediate needs for food, shelter, medical care, and protection of survivors of armed conflict. More than once I have heard leaders say that the living are a higher priority for them than the dead – as though the families of the missing are of no consequence. The politics of reconstruction also plays a role in forgoing attention to the missing, which may be seen as destabilizing in a fragile post-conflict setting. Even the institutions of justice essential for accountability may exacerbate the suffering of families by addressing the missing only in the context of evidence for prosecutions. Finally, and perhaps worst, the missing and their families are not seen as having any rights in the sense that refugees and non-combatants do. As a result, no one has an obligation to assure that these rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

At Physicians for Human Rights, we have seen families of t he missing buffeted by inadequate mandates, institutional lassitude, false promises, lack of sensitivity to their grief and loss, and even suppression of information in conflicts as diverse as those in the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Rwanda, Georgia/Akhazia, Indonesia, Central America, and now Afghanistan – where the fate of thousands of captured Taliban soldiers remains unknown and few institutions are in a hurry to help families find out.

In recent years, through the work of the ICRC and other organizations, the missing have finally started to gain the world’s attention. The field is indeed moving fast in addressing the political, legal, psycho-social, and scientific requirements for a comprehensive and rights-based approach to the missing. We applaud the leadership of the ICRC in convening this international conference to review these developments, to prepare a declaration to establish standards for action. Detailed attention to administrative procedures for collecting and distributing information, protocols for forensic investigations and identifications, and discussion of culturally sensitive methods of family support, all can contribute enormously to meeting the urgent needs of the missing and their families.

We believe the most important and lasting contribution of this conference, and what makes it historic, is placing the missing in a framework of international human rights. Like other rights, the right to know is based fundamentally on human dignity. It is a right to be reunited with a family member who is living and to be able to carry out rituals of burial and mourning for a loved one who has died. At this conference, we can go far to recognize this right to know and insist that governments, non-governmental and international organizations, and the larger community recognize this right. Once a framework for action based on human rights exists, all else can follow, since rights bring with them obligations to protect, respect and fulfi ll them, and states and others can be held accountable for their conduct regarding the missing effectively and forthrightly.

This conference is thus a milestone. But to succeed, this initiative must be carried forward at the diplomatic level by governments, the United Nations and international organizations. The rights we recognize must be recognized in binding instruments for the protection of all persons against forced disappearances, and the protocols we establish must be adopted by international bodies. Governments must support and encourage best practices by organizations working on behalf of the missing.

At the same time, we must never forget these detailed protocols, and even the right to know, remain the second best solution. Compliance with international humanitarian law, respect for the integrity and dignity of all persons, including non-combatants, will prevent people from being among the missing. That is the greater and still enormously challenging task and one that should not be forgotten.

Thank you very much.