By Kathryne Bomberger,
On 27 May, I spoke at a plenary session of the 13th Biennial Conference of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). The conference was hosted in Washington DC by the US National Association of Women Judges; it brought together 900 judges from 82 countries.
In discussion with participants I was struck by the very broad consensus that now exists concerning the need for a coherent and coordinated international response to the challenge of missing persons.
Due to the link to criminal activity surrounding the circumstance in which persons go missing in the context of armed conflict, human rights abuses, organized violence, including human trafficking, as well as forced migration, during the last 30 years there has been a decisive move to address the gaps in humanitarian law in addressing the issue of the missing by embracing a rule of law approach. Where individuals have been subject to clandestine detention or where they have been murdered and then buried without identification, they have been victims of a crime.
This may seem obvious, but in many cases the criminality of what has happened is obscured by political and other considerations.
But criminality must remain front and center. Victims of crime have a right to the truth, to justice and to reparation. And governments all over the world are obliged under international and domestic law to help them assert these rights.
Ensuring that governments fulfil their legal obligations to victims and families of victims is an essential element in any successful missing persons process.
This in turn means that families of the missing and those who seek to assist them, must engage the authorities and work with them. This partnership will be at the heart of a successful missing persons program and reinstating the rule of law.
In the aftermath of natural disaster many of the same considerations apply. Governments have an obligation to help citizens to account for the missing. Assisting the authorities in fulfilling this obligation through a rigorous Disaster Victim Identification program, can be a key element in recovery from major natural catastrophe.
ICMP has developed effective strategies based on these principles during the two decades it has worked in the Western Balkans, where it has spearheaded an effort to account for the 40,000 people who were missing as a result of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. To date, 28,000 individuals – more than 70 percent of all the missing – have been accounted for, and in the case of the Srebrenica genocide, 7,000 of the 8,000 missing (almost90 percent) have been located and identified. . The systematic and scientific identification of the missing has contributed directly to the successful prosecution of war criminals.
This has been achieved by helping governments to draft and implement appropriate legislation, by encouraging family organizations to come together and lobby the authorities effectively, and by applying state-of-the-art forensic techniques (ICMP pioneered the use of mass DNA-led database analysis, which was the key to the high identification rate in the Western Balkans, particularly in the case of Srebrenica).
A credible and sustained effort to account for conflict-related missing persons can act as a deterrent to war crimes and can reduce the scope for constructing conflict narratives that are at odds with the historical truth.
All of this has important implications for the broader issue of peace implementation and disaster responses.
When tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for, long-term social stability is difficult to achieve. When ICMP conducted a survey in Bosnia and Herzegovina to assess popular attitudes to the missing persons process, we discovered an extraordinarily high level of support (over 80 percent) for the process among all of the communities. In addition, there was a clear view that a systematic program to account for the missing contributed to (rather than hindering, as some politicians had sought to argue) the overall peace and recovery effort.
Since 2003, ICMP has applied these strategies successfully in countries beyond the Western Balkans and in circumstances ranging from open conflict to major natural disasters.
On 29 May at the conclusion of the Washington conference, a motion approved unanimously by the assembled judges stated that resolving “the fate of the missing and disappeared in a manner commensurate with the rule of law promotes the commitment of the IAWJ to advancing human rights and equal justice for all.”
The conference congratulated ICMP on its recently acquired status as a treaty-based international organization, located in The Hague, applauded ICMP’s commitment to locating and identifying missing and disappeared persons, and expressed its support for ICMP’s efforts “to uphold the rights of survivors, including the right of families of persons missing as a consequence of conflict, human rights abuse, disaster, organized crimes, and forced migration, and others missing for involuntary reasons.”
Of course, it was a great honor for ICMP to be recognized in this way, but I think the real significance of this gesture was that it reflects a consensus that systematic programs to account for the missing, based on the rule of law and bringing together all stakeholders, including governments and family organizations, are an essential component of global efforts to deal with the results of conflict, human rights abuses, crime, disasters, forced migration and other circumstances that cause people to go missing.