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The Missing Conference - Daily bulletin no 2


Geneva, 19 February 2003


 The International Conference on the missing began its work today in Geneva  


The International Conference on the missing met this morning in Geneva. It was declared open by Yves Sandoz , a member of the ICRC.

ICRC/T. Gassmann ref/CER-E-00027
Ms Yvonne Visaka Dharmadasa, President, Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action (Sri Lanka) 

 After a mood-setting video of testimonies from the families of the missing, Yvonne Visaka Dharmadasa , president of Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action, in Sri Lanka, focused in her speech on the psychological, social and economic problems faced by the families of missing people. " Anxiety, " she said, " has a tendency of increasing even after decades " and is a damaging aspect of the healing process. Social problems too are long lasting, she said, and she spoke in particular of the difficult situation of a s ingle woman in social structures such as that in Sri Lanka, where isolation and rejection are common. Psychological and social problems for the families of the missing are compounded by economic difficulties. More effective identification of the dead would reduce the scale of the problem and recognition of the role of family associations would help the healing and reconciliation process. In his declaration to the conference, Leonard S. Rubenstein , executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the missing, and their families, were " largely missing from the concern of states, international organizations, NGOs and even from international humanitarian and human rights law " .


He outlined what he believed were the many reasons for this, including " and perhaps worst, the missing and their families are not seen as having any rights in the sense that refugees and non-combatants do " . He believed the conference provided the opportunity to place the missing " in a framework of international human rights " and to insist that the wider international community recognize the right to know. " Rights, he said, " bring with them obligations to protect, respect and fulfil them, and states and others can be held accountable. " He looked to binding instruments, and best practices, but reminded the conference that compliance with IHL was the best way to prevent people from being among the missing.

ICRC/T. Gassmann ref/CER-E-00028
  Jean-Marc Boulgaris, ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations 

  Jean-Marc Boulgaris , ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations underlined that the phenomenon of the missing was not confined to armed conflicts alone but applied also to situations of internal violence. He said that we faced a problem that brought together international humanitarian law and human rights law making the range of solutions needed very wide. " We have come together here " , he said, " to agree operational measures to be taken, in the area of prevention, the clarification of the fate of missing people and to support families who are themselves victims. Ambassador Boulgaris ended by emphasizing respect for human dignity which he said was the reason for and the basis of all action undertaken to tackle the problem of missing people.   Jakob Kellenberger , president of the ICRC, gave his keynote speech. " The ICRC has " , he said, " from the very beginning of its existence, sought to forestall disappearances, to restore family links and to ascertain the whereabouts of missing persons. Yet in many contexts it has been unable to fulfil its mission because of lack of sufficient political will on the part of the warring parties, or simply because of the general disruption in communities affected by armed conflict or internal violence. " " Humanitarian law " , he declared, " must become the unavoidable marker for any party involved in armed confrontation. It must be the unconditional guarantee for all persons affected by war against ar bitrary harm and gratuitous abuse. "

President Kellenberger concluded by saying: " It is my earnest hope that the outcome (of this conference) will provide a strong impetus for the establishment of agreements, guidelines and best practice in the field of prevention and assistance with respect to the issue at hand " .

At the end of the opening session, Sergio Vieira de Mello , UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, identified as a particular concern enforced disappearances. The disappeared, he said, were often " the most contentious issue in peace-making, the question that makes confidence-building all the more difficult. " He called on all governments and NGOs to work with the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to resolve outstanding cases. Current mechanisms, he continued, are not sufficient to deal with the problem. He hoped a new and legally-binding instrument would improve matters. Complementarity between humanitarian and human rights approaches was essential. In closing he said that the ultimate aim was prevention – to this end " strong democratic, legal and accessible institutions will be better equipped to discharge the state's obligations and uphold the rule of law. "

 [The full text of the speeches are available on the ICRC web site http://www.icrc.org/eng/themissing]  

 Report by the ICRC  


 Sophie Martin , head of the project on the Missing at the ICRC presented the conclusions of the process that led up to the conference. " Uncertainty about the fate of their relatives, " she said, " is a harsh reality for countless families in armed conflict and internal violence. All around the world, parents, siblings, spouses and children are desperately trying to find lost relatives. Families and communities, not knowing whether their members are alive or dead, are unable to obtain closure on the violent events that have disrupted their lives. Their anxiety remains with them for years after the fighting has subsided and peace returned. They are unable to move on to personal or community rehabilitation and reconciliation. Future generations carry with them the resentment caused by the humiliation and injustice suffered by their relatives and neighbours. Such festering wounds can rot the fabric of society and undermine relations between persons, groups and nations for decades after the actual events.

" The relevant state authorities, armed groups and leaders must therefore take action, backed by national and international humanitarian and human rights organizations, to prevent people from going missing and to deal with the consequences when they do. For this, they can choose from a broad spectrum of measures involving persuasion, substitution, denunciation and judicial action. Whenever possible, constructive dialogue must be fostered between all parties – including the families of missing persons and their communities. This is the only means of reducing the number of missing persons and of identifying appropriate measures to be taken in their favour and that of their relatives. "

 The full text of the   report ICRC web site   is available in English and French on the  



 General debate  

Following the opening speeches and the presentation of the ICRC report, the delegates began a general debate on the issues raised.


 The conference working group meets  

The working group, chaired by Ambassador Nicolas Michel (Switzerland), began its work today. It is tasked with drawing up the final document of the conference, which will be presented to delegates on Friday.

 Programme for tomorrow – 20 February 2003  


09.00 – 12.30 Plenary: general debate continues

09.00 – 12.30 Working group meeting continues

14.00 – 18.00 Working group meeting continues

13.30 – 15.30 Panel: Families and their need to know the fate of their relatives

13.30 – 15.30 Panel: Collection, exhumation and management of human remains

16.00 – 18.00 Panel: Members of the armed forces and armed groups – identification and information bureaux

16.00 – 18.00 Panel: Mechanisms to solve issues on unaccounted for people

This daily bulletin is for information purposes only and is not an official document of t he conference. It will be available to participants each morning and on the ICRC web site . It is also available to the media, ICRC delegations worldwide and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.


Ian Piper, ICRC (English)

Jette Soerensen, ICRC (French)

Editor: Antonella Notari

Photos: Thierry Gassman, ICRC

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