A Cornerstone of Peacemaking


By Thomas Miller and Kathryne Bomberger

Today, the number of missing and disappeared persons (MDPs) around the world as a result of conflict and political unrest can be measured in millions. This means millions of families may never know the fate of a loved one. It means millions of reasons for fear, for anger, and for alienation.

From Sri Lanka to Mexico to Pakistan, addressing the issue of MDPs is a prerequisite for political and social recovery. Over the last two decades a new consensus has emerged that resolving this issue is a cornerstone of peacemaking.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), established in 1996 at the initiative of former President Bill Clinton to help the authorities in the Western Balkans account for 40,000 persons missing as a result of the Yugoslav conflict, is leading a concerted effort to turn this emerging international consensus into an effective global strategy.

ICMP spearheaded a program that brought together scientists, civil society, and political, judicial and police authorities to identify more than 70 percent of the missing in the Western Balkans, including nearly 7,000 of the 8,000 men and boys who disappeared in the Srebrenica genocide. It has gone on to help countries throughout the world tackle the issue of MDPs.

While ICMP is the only international agency exclusively mandated to work on this issue, diverse organizations are making important contributions from different perspectives and with different levels of resources and expertise. It is essential that this multi-agency effort is properly coordinated – because it can deliver extraordinary results.

On 27 January ICMP, together with the mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations brought together diplomats and experts at the UN in New York to explore core aspects of the global missing persons crisis, and to consider realistic strategic solutions.

The meeting highlighted the cross-cutting nature of the problem. Among the speakers, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein addressed the issue of human rights violations and conflict; Sister Consuelo Morales, a Catholic nun from Northern Mexico, explained how her organization successfully brought together stakeholders from the judicial and law enforcement sector to work constructively with families of the missing; Special Commissioner of the Italian Government for Missing Persons Vittorio Piscitelli said that governments must investigate all reports of missing migrants, which means that reports must be collected and processed effectively not only through domestic law enforcement agencies and courts, but also through international cooperation; and David Tolbert, the President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, explained how international legal instruments can be deployed more effectively to ensure that states fulfil their statutory obligations in regard to missing persons.

Practical strategies include using existing resources in more productive ways, leveraging media focus into political support for effective programs, and applying legal instruments more vigorously and proactively. In the Western Balkans, for example, ICMP worked to get a wide variety of government agencies in the region that were responsible for accounting for the missing to share information, making it easier for agencies in different countries to work effectively. Developing media and lobbying strategies with organizations of families of the missing enabled families in the region to play an active role in the effort to account for the missing and gave them tools to ensure that the authorities did what they were mandated to do. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, many years of work went into creating a law on missing persons and establishing institutions capable of accounting for the missing in a just and systematic way, but this made the undertaking sustainable over the long run.

This is a complex problem that can only be tackled effectively if there is political will, civil society engagement, and institutional capacity based on the rule of law. ICMP has shown that these essential elements can be brought together, and that they can – and must – be applied in societies recovering from conflict. They are necessary to peace.

ICMP’s high throughput DNA identification system is an example of state of the art technology. But one of the key lessons of almost twenty years of experience in this field is that DNA is not a magical elixir. It is an essential component of a holistic program.

Moving forward from the UN meeting, ICMP will establish an Inter-Agency Committee on Missing Persons to coordinate the efforts of international organizations, civil society organizations, and forensic agencies as well as governments. And at the end of this year ICMP will convene a Global Forum on Missing Persons, bringing together policymakers, legal experts, academics, civil society activists and others to advance international discourse on this issue.

These are concrete initiatives that can have a huge and positive impact on efforts to promote peace and recovery in post-conflict societies around the world.

Thomas Miller is Chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons. He was formerly US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kathryne Bomberger is ICMP Director-General.