When troops loyal to the government in Baghdad retook Tikrit in April, they discovered hundreds of bodies buried in mass graves near the River Tigris; hundreds more victims of Islamic State are believed to have been dumped in the river. This episode is just one piece in a blood-soaked mosaic: half a century of dictatorship and conflict have resulted in reports that there are up to one million missing persons in Iraq.
Speakers at conferences organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Baghdad and Erbil at the end of April and the beginning of May stressed the need to gather precise statistics as a preliminary step in tackling this issue, but one participant from an Iraqi women’s group summed up the nature and scale of the problem when she described missing persons as “the biggest and the oldest crisis facing our nation”.
ICMP has been addressing the issue in Iraq since 2003. We have trained more than 500 Iraqi technicians in methods of locating and documenting missing persons cases, including the use of advanced archeological, anthropological and DNA identification techniques, and we have worked with Iraqi institutions and civil society to enhance the missing persons process within an overarching rule-of-law framework.
The ministers, parliamentarians, legal experts and civil society activists who took part in the Baghdad and Erbil conferences displayed what is to my mind a remarkable combination of resolve and realism. There is a very clear understanding that accounting for the missing is an indispensable element in post-conflict recovery and – over the long-term – reconciliation. Societies have a human obligation to ameliorate the suffering of the bereaved by determining the fate of loved ones. In addition, there is a political imperative – because you cannot sustain functioning and accountable government on a foundation of injustice. Absence of certainty over the fate of the missing creates a vacuum in which suspicion and hatred will fester.
Even in the present unstable security and political situation it is essential that Iraq forges a long-term strategy on missing persons. This is an issue that has to be addressed if recovery, when it begins, is to succeed.
At ICMP’s Baghdad conference, Speaker of Parliament Salim Al-Jabouri called for a “road map” on accounting for missing persons through legal and judicial means. Participants at the meeting in the Parliament Building alluded to the importance of implementing the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Iraq ratified in 2010, in particular in terms of defining the crime of enforced disappearance, developing the forensic approach to missing persons cases and improving the financial situation of families of the missing. They also discussed ways of integrating international norms in Iraqi legislation to ensure, for example, that government officials understand the rights of families of the missing, as prescribed in ICMP’s Declaration on the Role of the State in Addressing the Issue of Persons Missing as a Consequence of Armed Conflict and Human Rights Abuses.
Conference participants agreed that Iraq can only make progress on the basis of a comprehensive plan that is implemented in a coordinated manner in conjunction with political, administrative, and legal measures and fully supported by civil society.
The meeting in Erbil explored ways of coordinating the work of agencies responsible for dealing with missing persons, in the Parliament and Government of Kurdistan and with the authorities in Baghdad, in order to ensure that the missing can be located and accounted for in every part of the country.
Among other proposals, participants at the roundtables discussed the establishment of a common database in which information on missing persons could be listed comprehensively. Such a database could also allow families to record and access information online, a system that ICMP already operates in other countries.
There will be some who argue that in current circumstances implementing such a plan in Iraq is simply unrealistic. I disagree. The problem won’t be solved in the short term, but we must nonetheless begin working towards the long-term objective of accounting for the missing. The truth is that it would be unrealistic to imagine that Iraq can afford not to start tackling the problem.
Accounting for the missing is a fundamental and essential element in resolving the present conflict. If we simply do nothing, Iraqis will have up to a million reasons not to make peace.
Kathryne Bomberger is Director-General of the International Commission for Missing Persons