Human Rights Are Not an Added Option

Statement by ICMP Chairperson Knut Vollebaek and ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2023

Governments have the right to implement policy but they have an obligation to do this according to the law, an obligation that extends to treaties and conventions signed by their predecessors. Of course, laws can be changed and countries can withdraw from international agreements – but as long as the legal framework is in place, it must be followed.

This is crucial in situations where people go missing: when this happens as a result of conflict or political repression or irregular migration, multiple human rights abuses are likely to be involved. A legal obligation is triggered on the part of the State to conduct effective investigations that are official, impartial, prompt, and transparent and deploy means capable of establishing the facts.

Abuses may include violations of the right to security and liberty, the right to dignity, the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to a family life and the right to recognition as a person before the law. In the absence of effective and official investigations, disappearances concurrently represent grave abuses of the rights of surviving relatives and others.

These rights are guaranteed under international conventions to which almost all European countries are party.

The debate over irregular migration is routinely couched in political rather than legal terms, which gives the impression that processes designed to address issues such as migrants who go missing are a matter of discretion. In many cases, they are not. They are a matter of law. The issue of disappearances on migratory routes is not only about upholding human dignity, it is about upholding the rule of law, and this applies equally to citizens and non-citizens.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Europe has the highest number of dead and missing migrants in the world. The Guardian newspaper reported just this week that refugees and migrants are being buried in unmarked graves across the European Union at an unprecedented scale.

Since 2018, The International Commission on Missing Persons has been working with the governments of Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta to develop a Joint Process to account for missing persons in the Mediterranean. The participating countries have undertaken an assessment of their investigatory capacities and have identified areas where cooperation can be enhanced. One objective is to do this by making better use of existing resources, which will enable governments to fulfill their legal obligations in a way that is economical as well as effective.

The tectonic plates of demography and economic development are shifting and this shift is being fueled by climate change. The IOM reports that there were around 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, compared to 128 million in 1990 and more than three times the figure in 1970. Since 2014, according to IOM, 60,253 migrants have gone missing, including 28,248 who went missing in the Mediterranean. The number of recorded deaths is likely to be a fraction of the actual figure, since irregular migration is largely undocumented and underreported.

The exponential rise in global migration will continue: it cannot be stopped, but it can certainly be managed more effectively and more humanely than is the case today. This can only be premised on respect for the rule of law. Efforts to manage migration cannot abridge, undermine or circumvent legal obligations, because that would result in the very erosion of established order that opponents of immigration (among others) typically say they wish to prevent.

On International Human Rights Day it is important to highlight the fact that the rights of migrants are indivisible from the rights of citizens. Governments have an obligation to protect the interests of their own electorate and they also have an obligation to uphold the rule of law – the key to doing both is to champion human rights for all.