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International Conference on the Missing : opening statement

19-02-2003 Statement

by Ambassador Jean-Marc Boulgaris, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations Office and the other international organisations in Geneva


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the great honour and pleasure of addressing you briefly today, and of sharing certain thoughts with you on the occasion of the opening of this Conference.

The problem of persons declared missing has preoccupied us for many years and has already been considered by various forums. More than a quarter of a century ago, in 1977, the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions established the right of families to be informed of the fate of their relatives. The proclamation of this right, considered as fundamental, acknowledged an “important step forward in the field of international efforts to protect human rights.” Eleven years ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance. And since the beginning of the year, a Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights has been dedicated to drafting a legally binding normative instrument in this respect. For the last few decades, various international, regional and local instances have been trying to resolve the cases of missing persons and to support the families of the victims. In spite of these various developments, the problem of people unaccounted for still persists. In gathering together today, we are bearing witness to our commitment on both governmental and non-governmental levels and to our will to strengthen our efforts so that we can more efficiently fight against this evil.

Allow me at this stage to share an initial consideration with you, one that is essential to the assessment of the problem of missing persons. The phenomenon of disappearance is not limited to armed conflicts alone, but is also present in cases of internal violence. Therefore, since we are faced with a problem that is relevant to both international humanitarian law and to human rights, the range of possible solutions is much greater. The various initiatives at the international level, be it in international humanitarian law, in human rights, or even in international criminal law as is the case of the newly-created Working Group of the United Nations, demonstrate that the subject must be addressed in its entirety

This overall view is even more important because the problems associated with missing persons call for very diverse measures. Thus we have come together for three days to consider the operational measures that could be undertaken, both with regard to prevention as well as with regard to the clarification of the fate of missing persons and the support of their families, who are victims themselves. If we want these measures to contribute effectively to eliminating this scourge, they must be implemented unconditionally, in times of peace as well as during internal violence and armed conflict.

My second consideration concerns respect for human dignity. Human dignity is the foundation of our efforts and should govern all of our initiatives in the fight against disappearances. In the first place, full respect for human dignity is the best defence against the phenomenon of missing persons and thus constitutes a major pillar of prevention. But even more, respect for human dignity is called for in the efforts that we are undertaking to confront the cases of missing persons. Be it in exchanging information on missing persons, in exhuming and examining their remains, or in contact with the families, respect for human dignity is both the reason for all of our efforts and the basis of them. In this sense, we owe it to the families of the victims to maintain this respect during all d iscussions still to come.

And finally, to the question:'Should priority be given to searching for missing persons, for whom the probability of death is not negligible, or to supporting their families and an entire community?', I reply once again by invoking human dignity, which leaves no room for ambiguity. Because it is only by clarifying the fate, by investigating the causes of disappearance or death that we will succeed in effectively remedying the constant anxiety and anguish that has been inflicted upon the families of the victims and those close to them. Let us therefore equip ourselves with all the tools we need to address these two tasks at the same time.

In concluding, we would like to congratulate the International Committee of the Red Cross, and all the experts who participated last year in the various studies and workshops, for their involvement in drafting recommendations related to the various aspects of missing persons. At the same time, we would also like to mention our deep appreciation for the Report of the ICRC containing a summary of the results of the first phase of this project. We want to assure you of our full collaboration in this most valuable process. We are looking forward to a conference filled with constructive ideas which will serve, in turn, as a springboard for discussions in other surroundings, and in particular within the scope of the International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent next December.

Thank you for your attention.

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