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Civil and political rights - persons missing as the result of armed conflict or internal violence

10-04-2003 Statement

59th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Agenda item 11 - 10 April 2003. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chairperson, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As many of you will know, from 19 to 21 February in Geneva the ICRC held an international conference of governmental and non-governmental experts on the issue of persons missing as the result of armed conflict or internal violence and the problems faced by their families.

For the ICRC, this event constituted a major step forward on a very long road.

The conference was preceded by eight workshops and three studies on missing persons, resulting in practical recommendations on legal and operational matters and specific proposals for measures to help prevent enforced disappearance, ascertain the fate of missing persons and assist their families [1]

But the conference was not just an opportunity to share the outcome of this work. It was also, and perhaps above all, a chance to become aware of the scale of the problem.

Probably for the first time, all the major partie s came together. Families of missing persons, politicians, military personnel, human rights activists, forensic scientists and humanitarian organizations (in particular the different components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement) spent three days engaged in rich and moving dialogue. All could see that in other parts of the world – whether in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa or Asia – many people faced the same problems.

The conference also highlighted the complexity of these problems, and the diversity of the parties responsible for solving them. If we are to respect and ensure respect for existing legislation, develop appropriate legal instruments, eliminate impunity, facilitate the identification of bodies and give families the material and moral support they need, everyone will have to work together. The conference clearly showed that progress will require a multidisciplinary and coordinated approach.

While there were differences of opinion on the right of families to know the fate of their loved ones, as laid down in international humanitarian law, the central point was recognition of the pain suffered by those facing the uncertainty that remains when a relative disappears. The automatic conclusion of such recognition is that we must do everything possible to end this uncertainty.

On the basis of the report prepared by its working group, the conference adopted by consensus a set of observations and recommendations [2] . These are available to anyone interested.

The conference and the resulting documents must become a springboard for action.

This action must start on the ground. Government authorities, armed groups, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations and the ICRC all now have a set of operational tools. By using them and by coordinating their efforts, they will be able to work more effectively.

The ICRC will continue to support the working group set up following the 2002 workshops on managing human remains. The aim is to consolidate and develop international professional standards in the field of forensic science.

But there must also be continued action on the diplomatic and advocacy.

The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003 is an important date. To protect human dignity, the participants should commit themselves to significant action on the issue of missing persons and their families. In addition, the efforts of the UN Commission on Human Rights’ Working Group on a draft legally binding normative instrument for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance bring considerable hope. The ICRC will continue to follow these efforts with great interest.

Finally, there is a need for all of us to remain active and indeed to become more so. The ICRC is determined to be one of the driving forces behind this endeavour.

Thank you, Madam Chairperson.



1. These are set out in an ICRC summary report, available on request, entitled: “The missing and their families – Summary of the conclusions arising from events held prior to the International Conference of Governmental and Non-Governmental Experts (19-21 February 2003).” (ICRC/The Missing/01.2003/EN/10)

2. “The missing: Action to resolve the problem of people unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict or internal violence and to assist their families. International Conference of Governmental and Non-Governmental Experts, Geneva, 19-21 February 2003: Results.” (TheMissing/Conf/02.2003/EN/82 and 1).