Missing persons

IRRC No. 848

This special issue on missing persons examines protection work and restoration of family links, support for the families of missing persons, collection and management of personal data, and mechanisms for handling cases of missing persons.

Table of contents

  • Editorial: Missing persons

    The present edition of the Review deals exclusively with the issue of missing persons or persons unaccounted for. Confronted with this issue on a daily basis, the ICRC has resolved to start a process of deliberation on it. The first phase has been devoted to gathering and analysing information on related topics, in close cooperation with academic institutions. The topics reviewed cover protection work and restoration of family links, support for the families of missing persons, collection and management of personal data, and mechanisms for handling cases of missing persons. The Review publishes herewith a selection of articles on the missing persons issue, some of which have been prepared for the deliberation process.

  • The missing

    Uncertainty about the fate of missing persons is a harsh reality for countless families affected by armed conflicts or internal violence. Existing international rules are designed to prevent persons from becoming unaccounted for and to ensure that missing persons do not remain missing, but are often not put into practice. The short introductory artic le describes the problematic and outlines measures in different fields to narrow the phenomenon and to respond to the needs of families that have lost contact with their relatives.
    Sophie Martin, Head of Project Missing Persons from 25.06.2001 to 31.08.2004.

  • The ICRC and the missing

    This article describes humanitarian issues and dilemmas faced by the ICRC in dealing with persons unaccounted for during and after armed co nflict. It gives a short overview of the relevant rules of international humanitarian law and emphasizes the respect of legal obligations to prevent disappearance and separation and to alleviate the plight of families of missing persons. Best practice in the field of conflict-related disappearances would be respect of the law. Raising awareness of international humanitarian law, cooperating with the belligerents, assisting them to respect their obligations and acting as neutral intermediary between them in view of facilitating compliance are the main functions of the ICRC in this regard. As belligerents often do not respect or sometimes even distort their obligations, the institution frequently has to substitute itself in fulfilling their duties. The article shows practical examples and proposes systematisation and development of ICRC activities related to the missing issue.
    Marie-Louise Touga, Research assistant
    Marco Sassòli, Professor

  • From regimental number to genetic code: The handling of bodies of war victims in the search for identity

    Starting from the middle of the nineteenth century, the principles governing the processing of corpses and the accounting of those deceased on the battlefield were inscribed in military codes. The military and civil authorities carried out the official collection and recording of the effects of the dead: the bodies were to be searched for, identified, and protected from plundering and ill treatment. In Europe and in the United States, tombs were constructed containing non-identified remains under the name of “unknown soldiers”. Gradually, intelligence services and resources were mobilized to ensure as far as possible an individualized processing of the bodies of those killed in war. These procedures were extended little by little to civilian victims. Today in the Balkans, or in Argentina, pits are being opened, human remains are exhumed, and anthropologists and physicians examine bodies, remains and bones in order to establish the identity of the dead and the circumstances of the d eath. In this regard, the tombs of unknown soldiers are likely to be replaced by monuments to the memory of non-identified civilian victims of war.
    Luc Capdevila
    Danièle Voldman

  • ‘Denial and silence’ or ‘acknowledgement and disclosure’

    This paper addresses the problems family members of forced disappeared persons may encounter. Forced disappearances are surrounded by fear and silence. Feelings of hope, the lack of an official disclosure, and economic, social and legal problems may all complicate the daily lives of those searching for their relatives year after year. Farewell ceremonies and death rituals have the important function of recognising the life and achievements of a deceased person. Since the whereabouts of disappeared persons are not known, a farewell ceremony is normally not performed for them. It is important for the persons giving support to relatives of disappeared persons to recognise differences in mourning and death rituals. Normal signs of bereavement can mislead a clinician who is not aware of these cultural differences. The article describes how the complex circumstances that family members of disappeared have to face may lead to complicated grief. Family members of forced disappeared persons are in principle entitled to reparation. However, for most of them this is not a reality. Pursuing reparation is associated with many difficulties. There is a need for a comprehensive understanding of the complex problem of disappearances in order to properly assist family members of missing persons.
    Magriet Blaauw
    Virpi Lähteenmäki, Psychologist

  • Humanitarian action, religious ritual and death

    Over and above their differences, humanitarian workers and clergy have one point in common: they both come into contact with death and suffering. In such circumstances, however, they each have their own approach. The religious approach is to provide solace for the dying and, later, for the bereaved, through a series of rituals. Humanitarian workers, for their part, are more concerned with tasks such as recovering bodies, informing families of the death of their loved ones and helping them to cope with the consequences. In cases where bodies cannot be recovered (missing persons), both humanitarian action and funeral rites must be adapted in such a way as to relieve the distress of families and enable them to start the grieving process.
    Sylvain Froidevaux

  • The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

    The article outlines the inception and subsequent development of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, describes its mandate and working methods, reviews its activities and makes several recommendations to restore its effectiveness. Established in 1980 with a humanitarian mandate, the Group saw its duties steadily increase and, when the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted, it was entrusted with the task of monitoring States compliance with their obligations deriving from it. Its humanitarian task includes an elucidatory procedure to trace the whereabouts of missing persons. In its task of monitoring compliance with the Declaration, the Group verifies that the obligations deriving from it are duly performed by States and addresses general observations and recommendations to them. During its existence the Group has made substantial contributions. For several reasons, however, it has lost much of its effectiveness. Yet enforced disappearances are not a thing of the past, nor are they diminishing. The Group and its mandate are as necessary as ever.
    Federico Andreu-Guzmán

  • Overcoming tensions between family and judicial procedures

    Uncertainty about the fate of missing persons is a harsh reality for countless families affected by armed conflicts or internal violence. Existing international rules are designed to prevent persons from becoming unaccounted for and to ensure that missing persons do not remain missing, but are often not put into practice. The short introductory article describes the problematic and outlines measures in different fields to narrow the phenomenon and to respond to the needs of families that have lost contact with their relatives.
    Vasuki Nesiah, Senior Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York

  • The missing in the aftermath of war: When do the needs of victims’ families and international war crimes tribunals clash?

    The international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have increasingly relied on forensic scientists to collect physical evidence of mass killings associated with acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Typically, these investigations have resulted in only a small number of the deceased being identified because the tribunals lack the resources to conduct thorough investigations of the missing or because the evidentiary needs do not require that all of the victims be identified. Meanwhile, the families of the missing are left in a limbo of ambiguous loss, torn between hope and grief, unable to return to the past, nor plan for the future. Without bodies and funerals, they often are unable to vizualize the death of their loved ones and accept it as real. Under the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, families have the right to know the fate of their relatives. To facilitate exercise of this right, an international network of forensic scientists should be established to develop and disseminate guidelines and standards of practice and coordinate humanitarian investigations into the fate of missing persons. The network should be guided by the principle that the identification of the missing is just as important as providing evidence for criminal investigations.
    Eric Stover, Faculty Director
    Rachel Shigekane, Senior Program Officer

  • Developing standards in international forensic work to identify missing persons

    The humanitarian importance of identifying deceased persons is obvious. Most countries have systems in place to achiev e this. In situations of societal dislocation, often in the wake of war, insurrection, and gross abuses of human rights, families are desperate to know the fate of their loved ones. The developing international criminal justice system often does not need to know the identity of those deceased to establish the fact of a crime and the guilt of an accused person. In addition, those who undertake the examination may not be selected by reference to any credentials or evaluation of their competence. There is relatively little in the way of accepted international values and technical standards governing the work of forensic specialists operating in an international context. This is needed if reliable observations leading to reproducible conclusions by competent experts are to result.
    Stephen Cordner, Professor
    Helen McKelvie , Manager

  • Reflections on the scientific documentation of human rights violations

    The use of Forensic Sciences in the scientific documentation of human rights vio lations has created new challenges for the professionals involved in the task. These are not questions of understanding ordinary crimes, but of working on massive cases, in which the state tends to be the main perpetrator. In processes of political violence, the disappearance of a loved one is agonizing for the family, given the uncertainty about whether the person is alive or dead. The forensic scientists as well the concerned lawyers must therefore consider, before beginning an investigation, the psychological, judicial, political, economic and humanitarian consequences of exhuming human remains and trying to identify them. What first appears as a clear-cut scientific, technical operation may have complex and ambiguous boundaries as well ethical dimensions.
    Luis Fondebrider, Forensic anthropologist

  • Management, exhumation and identification of human remains: A viewpoint of the developing world

    Missing persons are those whose whereabouts are unknown and hence presumed dead, or those dead but whose remains are not recovered or are unidentified. The problem of missi ng persons arising from armed conflicts, internal violence and human rights abuses mostly affects developing countries, yet these countries are ill-equipped to tackle the problem. A first-hand account by the authors of the magnitude and gravity of the situation in Kenya is given as an example. Any proper initiative at resolving this issue must be proactive rather than reactive. The authors argue that a network for the identification of missing persons, based on the concept of Missing Persons Clearinghouses should be established in all regions of the globe. The concept is discussed in the article, and a detailed description of the steps involved in the process of human remains identification from the perspective of developing countries is outlined.
    Alex Kirasi Olumbe
    Ahmed Kalebi Yakub

  • Biotechnology, weapons and humanity

    Today, the world is on the verge of a revolution in biotechnology. Expected advances have enormous potential to benefit humanity. But these same technologies have great potential for misuse. They could facilitate the use of biological weapons either in armed conflict or as a means to spread terror. Deliberately inflicting disease and changing body chemistry is likely to become easier, deadlier, cheaper and more difficult to detect.

  • Books and articles (Winter 2002)

    Recent acquisitions of the Library & Research Service, ICRC