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Missing persons – Helping families find out the truth

29-08-2005 News Release 05/46

Geneva (ICRC) – Ahead of International Day of the Disappeared (30 August), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) calls for renewed attention to one of the most serious humanitarian problems caused by armed conflict – the fate of missing persons and the suffering of their families.

Today, hundreds of thousands of families around the world remain without any news of their relatives who went missing in situations of armed conflict or internal violence. Whether people go missing on the battlefield or are the victims of forced disappearances, their relatives have a right to know what has happened to them.

Like numerous other organizations around the world, the ICRC is striving to elucidate the fate of persons missing in connection with armed conflict and internal violence. One of its main aims in visiting places of detention and registering detainees is to prevent forced disappearances. Among the 570,000 detainees to whom the organization had access in 2004, ICRC delegates met more than 29,000 for the first time and duly registered them so that their whereabouts could be monitored throughout their period of captivity.

For many families in countries affected by armed conflict, Red Cross messages are the first sign of life from relatives whose fate was previously unknown to them. For these and other families split up by war, disturbances and tensions, Red Cross messages are often the only means of keeping in touch. Last year, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies collected and distributed more than 1.3 million messages across the world. The ICRC also established the whereabouts of more than 6,100 people for whom tracing requests had been filed by their families.

In addition to these activities, the ICRC is continuing to work on the problem of missing persons with States, non-State parties to conflicts, humanitarian organizations and others with a stake in the issue. The ICRC's plan of action to deal with the proble m is being gradually implemented. It includes efforts to:

  • promote existing international law in this area and support the strengthening of relevant domestic law; 

  • cooperate with military forces to ensure, among other things, that soldiers wear some means of identification and that human remains are properly handled on the battlefield;

  • promote standards regarding the proper handling of the dead, both by forensic specialists and by non-professionals;

  • promote guidelines detailing the specific needs of the families of missing persons and the means available to address them.

The ICRC will report on the results of these efforts at the next International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent scheduled to take place in 2007.

 For further information, please contact:  

 Annick Bouvier, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 24 58 / +41 79 217 32 24  

 Please see below for further details on some of the ICRC's worldwide activities to address the problem of missing persons and help their families.  




 Latin America  


In Latin America, where tens of thousands of people are still missing as a result of armed conflicts and internal violence, families have pioneered efforts to obtain information about them and to prevent further disappearances. It was they who were behind the launching of International Day of the Disappeared.

The plight of these families led to ground-breaking developments, later replicated in the Balkans, South-East Asia, southern Africa and other parts of the world, including the establishment of truth commissions, the use of innovative forensic tools, accountability on the part of the authorities, the granting of reparations, the institution of legal reforms to prevent disappearances and the adoption, in 1994, of the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.

Best practices pioneered in Latin America are reflected in the ICRC's recommendations on missing persons,* which have in turn helped the organization support positive developments in the Americas, including the adoption in May 2005 by the Organization of American States of a Resolution on the Missing, which reaffirms the families'right to know and will help prevent further disappearances.

 For further information, please contact:  

 Annick Bouvier, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 24 58 / +41 79 217 32 24  


  * These recommendations, issued by an international conference held in Geneva in February 2003, were adapted to the specific needs of Latin America at a regional conference that took place in Lima three months later.  



 Serbia and Montenegro  

The ICRC is acting as a neutral intermediary between the authorities of Belgrade and Pristina, helping them to elucidate the fate of more than 2,600 persons still missing as a result of the Kosovo conflict. As the chair of the working group on persons unaccounted for in connection with events in Kosovo between early 1998 and late 2000, it facilitates regular exchanges between the two sides. While there have been some improvements in the process of exhuming and identifying human remains, further efforts are needed to provide the many families who remain without news of their missing relatives with the answers they seek.

 For further information, please contact:  

 Peter Fluege, ICRC Belgrade, tel. +381 11 344 15 22  

 Idriz Gashi, ICRC Pristina, tel. +377 44 168 848  





Millions of families have been split up by conflicts in Africa and scattered across the continent with no prospect of meeting their loved ones any time soon. Red Cross messages are the only source of comfort for these people who are eager to know what has happened to their relatives.

In 2004 alone, nearly 1.2 million messages were exchanged on the continent, representing over 90 per cent of all those exchanged worldwide over the same period. The Great Lakes region accounts for more than 50 per cent of this figure, with West Africa in second position. So far nearly 400,000 messages have been exchanged in 2005.

In response to requests concerning missing family members, the ICRC is currently striving to trace more than 28,000 people.

This work would be impossible without the support of thousands of National Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers on the continent who travel by bicycle, car, boat and on foot to carry messages to the most remote areas of their countries. Through their joint efforts, the ICRC and its partner National Societies bring hope to distressed relatives across Africa and put an end to the pain caused by uncertainty.

 For further information, please contact:  

 Marco Jiménez, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 79 217 3217  




 Southern Caucasus  

More than 10 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement ending the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, during which thousands went missing, many families are still uncertain about the fate of their loved ones. The ICRC is keeping up its efforts to help the authorities of both countries fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law to find out what happened to those people.

In February 2004 the ICRC submitted to the authorities of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to the de facto authorities of Nagorny Karabakh, a list of persons unaccounted for in connection with the conflict. The updated version of this list contains 3,165 names. In January 2005 the ICRC further submitted to the parties a memorandum encouraging them to help elucidate the fate of these people and proposing that specific activities be undertaken to obtain information on the missing and make it available, to recover and identify human remains and to support the families involved.

The ICRC is continuing to collect tracing requests from the families of missing persons and it plans to step up this activity in 2006, when it will begin gathering personal information (ante-mortem data) that might help the authorities identify the remains of those who died during the conflict. This will be done in close cooperation with the respective State commissions on POWs, hostages and missing persons.

At the same time, the ICRC is encouraging the authorities to record and protect burial sites believed to contain the remains of people who died during the conflict with a view to their future possible recovery and identification.

The ICRC is also strongly urging the authorities to provide psychosocial assistance for the families who require it and is supporting them in their efforts to do so.

 For further information, please contact:  

 Annick Bouvier, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 24 58 / +41 79 217 32 24