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International Conference on the Missing: opening statement

19-02-2003 Statement

by Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC President.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In every situation of armed conflict or internal violence people go missing. There is indeed a variety of reasons why individuals may be unaccounted for. Violations of international humanitarian law or human rights law are at the basis of most cases of missing persons. The International Committee of the Red Cross has, from the very beginning of its existence, sought to forestall disappearances, to restore family links when they have been severed, 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 warring parties, or simply because of the general disruption prevailing in communities affected by armed conflict or internal violence. Other organizations, governmental and non-governmental, come up against similar obstacles.

The international conference that starts today, bringing together almost all organizations, institutions and experts active in efforts to resolve the issue of missing persons, represents an important step forward in a permanent process which has the following aims:

  • to review all methods of preventing persons from becoming unaccounted for in armed conflicts and of responding to the needs of families who have lost contact with their relatives;

  • to identify and agree on operational practices for the prevention of disappearances and complementary action to address that grave problem;

  • to raise awareness of the issue among government authorities, the United Nations and non-gove rnmental organizations, and also among other leaders and opinion-makers.

Sustained efforts have been invested by ICRC staff worldwide to draw together expertise and experience in order to map out the problems that need to be addressed and to propose ways and means of addressing them effectively. I can assure you that all the staff involved have demonstrated an impressive willingness to contribute to this project and to make it a significant move towards providing better protection for individuals in times of armed conflict and internal violence and wider support for those who endure the consequences  of such situations.

The ICRC’s efforts were driven by the awareness gained over the years all around the world of how desperate the families of missing persons become when they are unable to find out what has happened to their relatives. Like others, ICRC delegates have first-hand experience of how the separation of family members and uncertainty as to the fate of individuals can create breaches between communities and nations. This often overshadows for years and even decades the lives of individuals and relations between communities, constituting a constant threat to the restoration of security, stability and dialogue and a serious obstacle to reconciliation. We are spurred on by the knowledge and experience that disrespect for and wilful attacks against civilians and other protected persons in contemporary armed conflicts have devastated thousands of families and torn numerous communities apart. Urgent and determined action needs to be taken to offer better assistance to those who have lost their loved ones without ever gaining any recognition of their loss. Pressing and uncompromising measures need to be taken so as to spare other families from enduring similar humiliation and pain.

The ICRC is acutely aware of the fact that neither itself nor any other humanitarian organization could ever aspire on its own to pre vent persons from becoming unaccounted for or to meet all the needs of the families of the missing.

The duty to respect humanitarian law and to avoid abuses lies with all actors in situations of armed violence. It is, however, first and foremost government authorities and leaders who can take action to prevent disappearances and to deal with the consequences when they occur. National and international humanitarian and human rights organizations need to back them in their efforts, which will involve persuasion, pressure and possibly judicial action. Constructive dialogue and effective implementation of practical measures must be fostered among all parties, including the families of missing persons and their communities.

The ICRC is convinced that the first step towards better protection of persons at risk of becoming unaccounted for and towards the provision of adequate support to families who are without news of a relative is determined reaffirmation of and respect for the relevant existing international and domestic laws and rules. Humanitarian law 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 arbitrary harm and gratuitous abuse. It must provide a stronghold for the preservation of justice and human dignity under all circumstances.

In concrete  terms, this means that civilian individuals and groups at risk, such as displaced, isolated or besieged people, will be spared from deliberate attack and granted the means to remain in contact with their families; that persons under arrest will be treated humanely and guaranteed due process as well as the possibility to maintain family links; that the bodies of those killed in battle will be treated with respect and returned to their families. It means that the work of humanitarian organizations will not be obstructed but will be facilitated so that those who are not or are no longer taking part in the fighting can receive protection and assistance; it also means that families who cannot account for the whereabouts of a relative will be provided with adequate support and that every effort will be undertaken to alleviate their anguish.

The ICRC for its part will spare no effort to press for and promote greater respect for international humanitarian law and all other rules that can prevent people from becoming unaccounted for and to address the needs of families of missing persons. It will also strengthen its operational practices with regard to re-establishing family links, elucidating the fate of persons unaccounted for and supporting their families.

It is my conviction that progress also needs to be driven from other directions. Important developments are expected from the work of such bodies as the UN Human Rights Commission's Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Working Group on a draft legally binding instrument for the protection of all persons against disappearances. The relentless endeavours of associations and organizations representing the interests of families of missing persons will move governments and international organizations towards ensuring greater respect and support for the people affected. All these efforts are indispensable for improving and consolidating what is being done at present. It is my earnest hope that the preparatory work for this conference and its outcome 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.

Today we stand at a significant juncture in the complex process that aims to strengthen the measures which can prevent persons from becoming unaccounted for, support families in very difficult circumstances, and spare communities from being torn apart because they have been denied some of their basic entitlements: the right to know the truth and help to deal with it. Major challenges and obstacles stand in the way of this process, but I am confident that the work of this conference will enhance the commitment of all those present to taking practical steps towards overcoming them. For the sake of the many who have faced the devastating violence of war and for the sake of those who may be threatened by it in the future.

Ref. TheMissing/Conf/02.2003/EN/13

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