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The Missing: preventing disappearances and finding answers

27-08-2007 Interview

On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August, Renée Zellweger Monin, head of the ICRC's Task Force on the Missing, talks about how the organization is working to prevent disappearances and bring news to the long-suffering families of the missing.


  Renée Zellweger Monin    
  The Missing: women bear a large part of the burden

Florence Tercier, ICRC's women and war adviser:
When we think of missing persons, we think above all about the ways and means to find them. We tend to think less about those that are left behind. And yet, in numerous conflicts throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of people are left without news of their loved ones and in the majority of cases, it is the men who disappear and the women who lose husbands, fathers and sons. Although it is important to use every means to find out the fate of those unaccounted for, it is equally important to support those who are left without news, having to face the enormous emotional burden and concrete consequences of the disappearance of their loved ones. For women, the aftermath can be particularly dire. When a woman's husband disappears and she is left without a death certificate, she is considered neither widow nor wife – she has no rights over family possessions and often not even legal custody of her children. She is not entitled to a widow's pension and is unable to remarry. What's more, she must provide for her family and ensure her children's education. For thousands of women around the world, this situation requires a huge amount of strength, courage and resilience.    
   It has been said that the plight of missing people and their families as a result of armed conflict and internal violence is a preventable tragedy. How can this tragedy be prevented?  

The fact that people go missing in situations of conflict is indeed a great humanitarian tragedy that affects not only the victims, the missing, but also their families and the entire community. The suffering is enormous for the ones who stay behind – wives, mothers, children – living in permanent anxiety and longing constantly for news from the beloved one, news that in most cases never comes.

And yet, as you said, this tragedy can be prevented! How? First and foremost by respecting the law.

There are, in international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law and very often as well in national law, provisions that, if respected by the parties to a conflict, would prevent disappearances. Authorities and parties to a conflict have first responsibility for preventing disappearances. However, it is clear that they often do not respect these laws; otherwise, we wouldn't have tens of thousands of missing persons throughout the world.

To promote respect of the law, the ICRC disseminates IHL to national authorities, armed forces and organized armed groups. It also works with States to ensure that IHL is translated into national laws both in order to prevent disappearance and to deal with the consequences of it. In each context where it is present, the ICRC records actions that the authorities need to take in conformity with the law in order to prevent disappearances, and calls on them to adopt necessary measures.

Such measures, in addition to the development of national legislation as mentioned before, may concern the treatment of prisoners and their living conditions in places of detention, armed forces and the protection of civilians. For example, when people are arrested and detained, concerned authorities are required to register them and ensure that this information is transmitted to their families; armed forces are strongly encouraged to use ID tags allowing their members to be identified in case they are captured, wounded or killed; in case of massive displacements of population, authorities are asked to register and/or to provide the most vulnerable civilians such as children with means of identification.

 The new ICRC report,  Missing personsA hidden tragedy,   refers to the 'imperative to act' with regard to the disappeared, and mentions that not enough is being done to address the issue. What is the ICRC concretely doing and how does it plan to move this critical humanitarian issue forward in the coming years?  

In addition to what was mentioned before in relation to the role the ICRC plays regarding promotion and respect of the law, the ICRC carries out directly a wide range of activities that address the issue of disappearances.

In most situations of conflict, when the usual means of communication are disrupted, the ICRC helps separated family members to communicate, using Red Cross Messages, satellite and mobile phones, internet and other available means. It also collects information on missing persons and the circumstances under which they disappeared from their families and tries to locate them in all possible places – prisons, hospitals, camps – or by addressing the authorities directly. Such activities are often carried out with the assistance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In order to strengthen the capacity of the National Societies and of the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to carry out such activities, the ICRC has recently been developing a new worldwide strategy for the restoration of family links.

ICRC visits in places of detention can also play an important role in addressing disappearances. In places of detention, the ICRC records the identity of detainees. Registering detainees can play a role in preventing disappearances. The ICRC may also arrange for the exchange of family messages between detainees and their relatives.

Through its assistance programmes, the ICRC is also trying to help the families of missing persons who often find themselves in precarious situations fo llowing the loss of the family breadwinner.

In recent years, the ICRC has developed its contacts and activities in the field of forensic medicine, which is a key component in learning the fate of missing persons. This is an aspect that the ICRC will continue to pursue and expand. It has also increased cooperation with family associations and will continue to do so.

For the years to come, the ICRC will continue to enhance its actions in the field as per the wide range of activities I described before and to lobby in favor of the missing and their families by all possible means. It is important to persevere with these efforts because the issue of missing persons is not something that can be solved quickly. We know this from experience.

Our work on the missing is a long-term and far-reaching commitment. When disappearances happen in a country, it takes years and sometimes decades to get answers. ICRC's priority in this regard is to remain at the disposal of the families over time, so that one day they get answers. It is also important that contact be maintained with the authorities in charge, as well as with other organizations that are involved in this issue in one way or another.


 In many countries the people in power after a conflict are the same as those who committed – or permitted – atrocities and disappearances during the hostilities. What is the ICRC's role in such delicate situations?  

The issue of the Missing is indeed often highly political and complex. Apart from the fact that people who contributed to disappearances may still be in power after a conflict, if the high numbers of missing persons are made public, the result can be a perception of defeat of one party to the conflict or the other. Therefor e authorities may be reluctant to tackle the issue. Once again, the main responsibility and power to provide answers lie with the authorities. And providing answers is a matter of credibility for the new authorities vis-à-vis their own citizens but also on the international scene.

The ICRC is thus in constant contact with national authorities, whoever they are and no matter what their role has been in the past, to help them establish the necessary mechanisms to clarify the fate of missing persons. Once again, the ICRC's role and priority remain purely humanitarian: helping families get an answer as to the fate of their missing loved ones.

Excerpt from ICRC report on the Missing – Georgia
"He was only twenty-two years old. He was so kind, so talented. I spent all my money, I went to see fortune-tellers in Azerbaijan, each time they said he was alive.

In 2003 I went back to Sochi – a region between Abkhazia and Russia – where I paid a friend of a friend to search the prisons. I didn't tell my daughter, she never would have let me go. My main goal in life now is to go to Tsugurovka, to the bottom of that cliff. Even if I find a skeleton I don't care, I just want my son back."

Guliko's loss is fourteen years old, and yet her wound is as raw as if it had taken place yesterday. Around the world there are hundreds of thousands of stories like hers.    
©ICRC/A. Montanari 
Excerpt from ICRC report on the Missing – Nepal
Their tales are so repetitive they're almost numbing. It was the middle of the night. We were asleep. A truck pulled up, they called my husband's name. They beat him and took him away. I never saw him again. At times the army came to the door. Other times it was the rebels. Many wives begged to be taken along with their husbands. Some asked to be killed in his place so that their children would be provided for.