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Missing persons: a serious shadow, a preventable tragedy

29-08-2007 Press Briefing

At a press conference in Geneva to launch an ICRC report entitled Missing Persons: a hidden tragedy, the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, has called on the international community to do more to address the plight of missing persons and their families.

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/cer-e-00731    
  Pierre Krähenbühl at the press conference in Geneva to launch a new ICRC report on the Missing.    

At the start of the press conference, Mr Krähenbühl welcomed the news that 8 of the 19 South Koreans that had been held for more than six weeks by an armed opposition group in Afghanistan had been released.

He praised the respect that all parties had shown for the ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary and said the ICRC was ready to facilitate the release of the remaining hostages.

Turning to the launch of the report , the ICRC director of operations said hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to be missing around the world as a result of armed conflict or other situations of violence. Some are dead but their remains have not been collected or identified and others are held in prison without the chance of contacting their families.

Much of the misery associated with the tragedy could be avoided, said Mr Krähenbühl, if parties to conflict respected international humanitarian law and human rights law, much of which is often enshrined in domestic legislation.

He also encouraged States to sign, ratify and implement the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances and called on non-state actors to abide by the same principles on moral and humanitarian grounds.

Mr Krähenbühl said that he first encountered the humanitarian impact of the missing as an ICRC delegate in Guatemala in the early 1990s where he met several groups of women whose relatives had gone missing during the country's civil war.

One woman told him that every time the telephone rang or that someone knocked at the door she was convinced that it was her husband returning.

" Behind every single missing person there is an individual with a life and a family, " said Mr Krähenbühl.

Although comprehensive global figures do not exist, ICRC records for certain countries show the scale of the problem. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 13,500 people remain unaccounted for, while in Sri Lanka almost 6,000 people are still missing. In Nepal, there are 976 people registered as missing.

While some of these people were lost on the battlefield and are presumed dead, others have been detained without their families being notified.

" No matter how legitimate the grounds for detention, there exists no right to conceal a person's whereabouts or to deny that he or she is being detained, " said Mr Krähenbühl.

Families of missing persons are suspended in limbo not knowing whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

" Families of the missing at least want a body or human remains to be able to pay tribute to their dead and enter the process of mourning. "

Mr Krähenbühl spoke of the ICRC's support for the Medico-Legal Institute (MLI) in Baghdad by repairing mortuary fridge units in morgues to ensure proper functioning so that families can identify bodies.

The MLI has received around 20,000 bodies in the last eighteen months. Almost half were unidentified. Many have been buried in special cemeteries.

As well as having to cope with the emotional consequences of a loved one being missing, a disappearance may also deny the family its main breadwinner, often imposing an additional burden on the women left behind to pick up the pieces.

Many Iraqi women whose husbands had gone missing during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 did not r emarry as it would take years before their husbands would be declared officially dead or absent. They awaited the return of their loved one, hoping he was detained as a prisoner of war.

Throughout the press conference, the ICRC's director of operations stressed that the issue of people going missing was a worldwide phenomenon.

" There are many contexts, of course, and realities that exist: the suffering of families in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo; of the families of all the missing Israeli soldiers; of the families in Afghanistan and Peru; in Colombia and throughout the Balkans to name but a few. "

He explained that clarifying the fate of the missing was an important step towards reconciliation; its absence could poison the process.

In Kosovo, he said the ICRC had just released the 4th Book of the Missing and worked with associations of families of the missing throughout the former Yugoslavia. He added that the ICRC supported forensic activities in more than 30 different countries.

" The issue of missing persons is a global one and a deeply unsettling one from the humanitarian viewpoint. It is preventable but requires genuine political will from all parties. "

" Without such action, the issue of missing persons will remain a serious shadow over the future of many communities. Without clarifying the fate of their loved ones, families will continue to live haunted but also animated by the dream that a miracle will present itself; a release from a secret prison, a new life in a foreign land or simply human remains and a grave that can be attended to. "