On 24 November, Her Majesty Queen Noor spoke at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, describing the creation and evolution of ICMP and the development of a new international consensus on how to deal with the global challenge of missing persons.
Queen Noor, who has been an ICMP Commissioner since 2001, noted that there ae now effective tools to address the global missing persons crisis created by natural disasters, conflict and migration. The processes and capacities developed by ICMP over the years are being applied throughout the world, from Iraq to Chile to Canada.
For a long time, accounting for people missing during conflict was treated under the Geneva Conventions, which require warring parties to record the identity of the dead and wounded and to share this information with enemy forces, but the nature of war has changed in the last 150 years, she said. In the19th century conflict casualties were overwhelmingly military: however, by the middle of the 20th century this had been reversed and many more civilians were killed in conflict than members of armed forces.
“The practical problem in applying the rules of war that charge combatants with addressing the fate of the missing is that they can no longer be presumed to know who and where most of them are,” Queen Noor said. “As a result, even once the fighting has ended, very little progress is made in locating and identifying the missing. Unfortunately, this is the situation in most of the world. Only a handful of governments have shown a commitment to recognizing the rights of victims and to employing a modern, rule-of-law-based approach.”
Queen Noor noted that the countries of the former Yugoslavia – in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the highest number of casualties and missing persons were recorded – had been at the forefront of recognizing the rights of victims and the responsibilities of governments. She identified key elements in the success of an effort, spearheaded by ICMP, to identify the missing from the conflict in the region:
- First, the international community turned its attention to the issue early on and continues to maintain support in the Western Balkans. As a consequence, the issue did not become a domain exclusively dominated by political factors, as it has in other parts of the world;
- Second, in their efforts to locate the missing, the countries of the Western Balkans systematically ensured the cooperation of their domestic institutions and justice systems;
- A third condition was the engagement of the families of the missing. They were the first to build a functioning civil society network, and then they worked directly with domestic institutions and with ICMP to locate the missing;
- A fourth condition relates to the rule-of-law approach taken in the region, which, for ICMP and others, included working to standards of evidence and investigations required for legal processes, in particular criminal prosecutions. Notably, ICMP has provided evidence regarding the identity of the victims of war crimes and human rights abuses in over 30 international and domestic tribunals;
- And finally, from the outset, ICMP had a public law status. It therefore could work within the framework of domestic public administrations and fill gaps in their capacity.
She said these factors meant that the issue of the missing was no longer being tackled solely as a humanitarian issue and by humanitarian actors, but as a public law issue to be addressed by public institutions including domestic courts, prosecutors and law enforcement. It also meant that the processes and capacities developed through ICMP over the years could be applied in other missing persons scenarios and other regions.
Noting that on 15 December 2014, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, became the first states to sign the Agreement on the Status and Functions of the International Commission on Missing Persons, granting ICMP a new status as an international organization, she said this marked “a historic shift in how states should address the issue of missing persons.”
Queen Noor stressed that “the fundamental human rights work of ICMP is not only palliative, it is preventative. The healing and recovery it affords victims, as well as the process of accountability it helps to foster with governments, are absolutely integral to the process of reconciliation, justice and ultimately conflict prevention.”
She noted that today ICMP is helping countries around the world to address the issue of the missing and disappeared in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, South Africa, El Salvador, and Chile. It has worked on cases from Norway and Canada and it is on standby to assist Denmark in case of a manmade or natural disaster. In the past it has helped countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and the United States to address missing persons from natural disasters. This list is not exhaustive and does not include the number of countries that have recently asked for assistance, such as Sri Lanka, Colombia and Italy.
“The development of ICMP presents a new approach towards creating a modern, light international organization the capacities of which can be used worldwide to help governments address enforced disappearance,” she said. “In the light of today’s global shocking events and crises, the existence of such an organization is very welcome news. However, a new approach cannot take root without corresponding changes in the traditional consultation and funding mechanisms of governments, and other common aspects of bureaucracy. Reforms are needed at both ends: in the case of ICMP, I am proud to say, change and growth have been underway for a long time and have already delivered positive results.”
To read the full text of HM Queen Noor’s speech, click HERE.