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The Missing: ICRC's statement at the ad hoc UN working group's 1st session

08-01-2003 Statement

In this statement, the ICRC calls on governments to take strong action to prevent people from going missing as a result of armed conflict and internal violence.

 [ICRC's statement at the 1st session of the inter-sessional open-ended UN working group on a draft legally binding normative instrument for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances.]  


Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the floor. We would like first to stress that the ICRC welcomes the first session of this working group. It has listened with great attention to the presentations and comments made thus far. The ICRC strongly supports the idea of additional binding rules, enhancing the existing ones, to prevent persons from becoming unaccounted for and to clarify the fate of those who have become unaccounted for during armed conflicts or internal violence. Disappearances can be due to either disorganization and acts of war or lack of good will on the part of State authorities or armed groups leading to crimes and violations.

Uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones is a harsh reality for countless families affected by armed conflicts and situations of internal violence. Across the world, parents, spouses and children are desperately trying to find lost relatives. Their anxiety can remain with them for years after the fighting has subsided and peace returned. Many are unable to move on with their lives or begin the process of recovery, sometimes passing on feelings of injustice and resentment to future generations, thus undermining relations between groups and nations even decades after the actual events.

Action must be taken. Governments should take the lead, backed, when required, by humanitarian and human rights organizations to prevent persons from going missing and to deal with the consequences.

In accordance with the mandate conferred on the ICRC by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, and its right of initiative in all theatres of operations, the organization's objectives include ensuring that people are protected against threats to their lives, their physical integrity and their dignity, preventing disappearances, restoring interrupted family links, and clarifying the fate of people whose families are without news of them. Nevertheless, in most places, the ICRC is prevented from fully accomplishing these tasks owing to inadequate political will on the part of the authorities or parties concerned. Inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations which are also active in preventing disappearances, promoting international humanitarian law and human rights as well as solving cases of missing people, face similar obstacles.

The ICRC accordingly has resolved to launch a process of reflection with those concerned. It decided to conduct it in two initial stages. The first phase has been devoted to gathering and analyzing information on a select number of topics, in close cooperation with academic institutions and some 120 governmental and non-governmental experts. Through 3 studies and 8 workshops, the topics reviewed cover protection work, prevention and restoration of family links, management of human remains, support for the families of missing persons, collection and management of personal data, and mechanisms for handling cases of missing persons. For each of these topics, needs of those affected, constraints and ways to address them were pointed out, and recommendations and best practices were formulated.

For the second stage, the ICRC is organizing an international conference, bringing together a broad spectrum of Governments, inte r-governmental and non-governmental organizations, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, research institutions and individual experts. The Conference is due to take place from 19 to 21 February 2003 in Geneva.

Participants to the Conference will have at their disposal, as background information, the reports on each event that took place before the Conference, as well as a summary report containing the findings of this process. This report will include two kinds of conclusions: First, on the basis of the existing international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law, it will include recommendations regarding the reaffirmation and enhancement of international law as well as for the development of domestic law. Second it will include operational best practices to be implemented by all actors involved in any given situation, concerned Governments, armed groups, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as the ICRC.

Both types of conclusions cover a large spectrum of topics from prevention to solutions regarding the right to know the fate of relatives, general protection measures, the use of force by law enforcement officials, the protection of persons deprived of their liberty, communication between family members, the treatment of the dead and graves, the identification of human remains, identification of persons in general and the collecting and forwarding of information, the legal situation of missing persons and of their relatives, the protection and management of personal data and genetic information and issues of accountability.

Naturally, it is the ICRC’s wish that the outcome of the conference be of direct use to the political and humanitarian actors working in armed conflicts and internal violence. It therefore hopes that all those involved will devote to the forthcoming conference the attention it rightly deserves, commensurate with the importance of the problems to be addressed.

Being made public at the February 2003 Conference, the ICRC strongly hopes that the mentioned documents, as well as the Conference results, will serve the work of the present working group. The ICRC will firmly support the present process in particular regarding the necessity to reaffirm the existing law while enhancing it and taking into account the different types of situations.

For its part, the Committee is determined to pursue and develop its activities to prevent disappearances and enable families to learn the fate of their relatives.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.