• Send page
  • Print page

The Missing - Mechanisms to solve issues on people unaccounted for


Workshop held in Geneva on 19-21 September 2002


  pdf fileFull summary of the proceedings (PDF file/ 786 Kb - Help)  

The workshop was attended by 24 experts from around the world involved in different aspects of the issue of missing people. The range of expertise represented allowed the issue to be tackled fro m a number of perspectives. Written contributions received prior to the workshop provided valuable input and formed a basis for the discussions.

The workshop's objective was to establish best practice guidelines as well as complementary approaches to ensure the effectiveness of mechanisms in clarifying the fate of people unaccounted for as a result of armed conflicts or situations of internal violence. Discussion covered a wide range of topics including the influence of the context on mechanisms, the objectives to be fulfilled by mechanisms or the means of obtaining information.

The workshop divided into three working groups. Each group’s findings and recommendations were then presented by a rapporteur and examined in a plenary; chaired by a participant. The role of the ICRC, apart from organizing the workshop, was to record the proceedings without attribution.

The workshop established that the main obstacles faced by mechanisms aimed at clarifying the fate of persons unaccounted for were of a political and technical nature in all situations under consideration. Types of situations, whether armed conflicts or situations of internal violence, should not be decisive in assessing the way of addressing the issue of missing people.

Preventive and corrective measures were identified to overcome identified obstacles, such as the need for a central national mechanism to obtain, manage and transmit to the families all information about victims in each country, the need for all mechanisms to deal with States and armed groups, for the human rights mechanisms to be extended to cover armed groups, and the need for authorities and civil society to be aware that the resolution of the issue of missing people is needed for future prevention so that it does not become a legacy.

The need of families for information is universal. Mechanisms put in place should not overlook the clarification of individual cases. According to the context and circumstances, the need for justice, accountability and acknowledgment should be considered in parallel.

States and armed groups bear primary responsibility for providing information on people unaccounted for and must be held accountable.

Measures such as amnesty laws, pardon commissions or laws reducing punishment and granting protection to perpetrators, provided there is an important contribution for truth, may be useful to gather information. However, blanket amnesty laws must not be enacted and these measures must be applied in accordance to international law. Third person information might also be helpful. Last but not least, the publication of names and pictures of missing people is very important for families and to put pressure on authorities.

In most situations there should be multiple mechanisms (e.g. humanitarian, political, judicial and non-judicial) to cover the whole range of needs of families and communities. Mechanisms should not be externally imposed; they have to be independent and impartial in outlook and working methods. The involvement of international organizations give them credibility. Mechanisms bringing the (former) warring parties together are useful for the search of missing persons if a third party is actively involved, but above all, if the political will of the parties exists. Criminal prosecution should provide, to the concerned families, information gathered during investigations, if this information could shed light on the fate of a missing person. It should be provided in a way and at the earliest time compatible with judicial guarantees and the efficiency of prosecution. Where the judicial mechanisms may not be able to handle all cases of persons unaccounted for, th e implementation of non-judicial mechanisms such as truth commissions should be considered.

Mechanisms should be complementary; they should coordinate their activities and exchange information on people unaccounted for while complying with the rules regarding the protection of personal data and their individual mandates. At the national level, a central database on all missing people should be managed by a single agency on the basis of information collected according to agreed standard.

Mechanisms need ongoing communication and consultation with the different sectors of society. They should clarify systematically their goals and working methods. They should have nongovernmental organizations as partners. Above all they should keep families informed about their work and limitations. But direct participation of families in mechanisms, processes (like exhumation) and information sharing should be dealt with in a sensitive and culturally appropriate manner. Mechanisms have a responsibility not to perpetuate the suffering of families nor give them false hopes. They should promote legal, psychological, financial, social and medical services to cover the needs of the families.

Related sections