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Missing persons: providing support to the grieving

23-04-2010 Interview

The World Congress on Psychosocial Work in Exhumation Processes, Forced Disappearance, Justice and Truth being held in Colombia seeks to adopt minimum standards and a guide for worldwide use in resolving problems regarding the tragedy of forced disappearances. Morris Tidball-Binz, an ICRC forensic expert, discusses what the conference aims to achieve.


Morris Tidball-Binz 

 Practitioners from 27 countries are gathering in Bogota between 21 and 23 April 2010 in order to discuss the psychosocial aspects of investigations regarding missing people in the hopes of establishing standards for providing psychosocial support to affected families and communities. Why is this important?  

It is necessary that any action to prevent and resolve the tragedy of disappearances as a result of armed conflict and other forms of armed violence takes into account the needs of the families of missing people. Until relatively recently, such needs were not considered. Often the families were excluded from efforts to clarify the fate of their missing relatives. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that family needs should be at the forefront of any efforts to shed light on the whereabouts of missing people.

There are a number of considerations for carrying out investigations on the fate of a person who has disappeared. In all cases, it is important to have a holistic approach. Firstly, families have a right to know the fate of their loved ones. This is enshrined in international humanitarian law and international human rights law and should be central to the work. Conclusive information can help the families overcome their grief. Other factors are important as well -- cultural, social, religious and material needs should all be addressed and special attention should be given to children.

Participants at the meeting include experts from governments, NGOs and international organizations that have a breadth of knowledge on psychosocial work with relation to disappearances. It is important that they agree specific recommendations on standards in the psychosocial processes of searching for missing persons and methods that can be applied around the world to provide support and assistance to the families of missing people.

 The ICRC has worked on the issue of missing persons for several years. How will the outcome of this meeting contribute toward providing better support for families of the missing?  

Yes, the ICRC has extensive experience in this field dating back to the 1990s and the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Through these and other conflicts the ICRC realized the importance of ensuring that families of the missing are at the core of efforts to prevent and resolve this tragedy and should have the right to psychological and social support as part of our global response to disappearances resulting from armed conflict and internal violence. This was reaffirmed by the ICRC during the 2003 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. In addition, experience has also proven the value of this approach in cases of missing people unrelated to armed conflict, such as natural disasters.

The ICRC was closely involved with the organization of the first world conference on psychosocial work in exhumation processes, which was held in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2007. Our Bogota delegation has provided support for the organization of the current meeting. These events provide an excellent opportunity for practitioners in this field to share their experiences and best practices which ultimately can help them provide better services to the families. Considering the broad variety of stakeholders, the meeting also aims to prevent the duplication of efforts. We hope people go back to their countries with a concrete plan of action relevant for their context.

 Families of missing persons suffer. Would you please explain how forced disappearances affect them?  

Families of missing people suffer greatly owing to the uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones who have disappeared during armed conflicts or internal violence. Those who are unable to restore contact with or discover the fate of their loved ones live in limbo, often not sure if their loved ones are dead or alive. They may spend everything they have or their entire lives searching in vain. Even if they suspect a family member is dead, relatives may not be able to mourn properly, claim their inheritance, sell their property or otherwise resume their lives until they know what has happened.

The needs of the families differ depending on their circumstances, education and economic situation. However most families agree on their priorities: they want an answer regarding the fate of the missing and they want economic support in the absence of breadwinners.

 Do you think families have a role to play in the process of searching for, recovering and identifying the remains of victims of disappearances?  

For many years there was a tendency to see families as passive recipients of assistance and support. This is not the case. Indeed, concerned families and communities have been at the forefront of many of the advances achieved in the prevention and investigation of the missing, including the application of forensic sciences for the recovery and identification of the disappeared.

In addition, families are key to providing essential information for assisting an investigation. When excluded, families are likely to be further traumatized which should be prevented in all circumstances.

See also II World Congress on Psychosocial Work in Exhumation Processes, Forced Disappearance, Justice and Truth web site