15 December 2014 – The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was established in 1996 at a G7 Summit in Lyon, France, to secure the co-operation of governments and other authorities in locating and identifying persons missing as a result of the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The approach of working together with governments and other authorities, including courts and prosecutors, as well as ensuring the engagement of civil society, has proven to be highly effective. Today, over 70% of those reported missing have been accounted for from the conflicts in the Western Balkans.
ICMP’s mandate and activities were expanded in 2003 to enable the organization to work globally and to respond to cases of manmade and natural disasters. Subsequently, since 2004, ICMP has assisted countries around the world in addressing missing persons cases from conflict, human rights abuses, manmade and natural disasters, organized crime, human trafficking, migration and other causes.
Countries outside the Western Balkans where ICMP has provided assistance are Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, the Maldives, The Philippines, Thailand, Albania, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Ukraine, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Canada, the US, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti and Mexico.
At ICMP’s international conference, “The Missing: An Agenda for the Future”, The Hague, 2013, government representatives, international organizations and others took stock of the work of ICMP and recommended that ICMP should develop into an organization fully recognized under international law. In the same year, Frans Timmermans, then Foreign Minister of the Netherlands and William Hague, then Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, announced their intention to seek the cooperation of like-minded States to elaborate an adequate legal basis for ICMP to exercise that mandate in the future.
The Agreement on ICMP was signed on 15 December 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. The original signatories are the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg and Sweden. Other states will be invited to accede to the Agreement. The Agreement represents an international Treaty constituting ICMP as a formal International Organization with its own structure of governance and international capacities.
The Agreement provides for a new organizational structure for ICMP, including a Board of Commissioners as its principal organ, a Conference of State Parties as the plenary organ of the organization, and an executive to be headed by a Director General.
The Agreement provides that ICMP shall establish its Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. There are important reasons for that choice of location for ICMP’s future Headquarters. The Hague is home to numerous international organizations in the justice and rule of law field, including the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals, as well as other relevant international organizations, such as The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the International Court of Justice, to name a few.
The Agreement does not establish the new Headquarters for ICMP, but creates the basis for concluding a Headquarters Agreement. For a Headquarters Agreement to take effect, and for ICMP to move to The Hague, the Parliament of the Netherlands has to approve the Agreement. It is expected that this will take place at some point in 2015.
The Agreement constitutes a significant advancement of the rule of law and human rights. It firmly embeds the issue of missing persons in international cooperation, and provides for an instrument and mechanism for that purpose.
States have human rights obligations to endeavour to locate the missing and to clarify the circumstances of their disappearance. These obligations are anchored in various international instruments such as the Universal Declaration on Human rights, the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the European Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled, for example, that a state’s failure to conduct an effective investigation to clarify the whereabouts and fate of missing persons constitutes a continuing violation of the State’s procedural obligation to protect the right to life and the failure to provide information can also amount to torture, and in many cases disappearances also constitute an interference with family life. Frequently, disappearances and persons going missing involve a host of other grave human rights violations, such as trafficking in human beings, slavery or extrajudicial executions.
The Agreement establishes ICMP as the specialized International Organization to address comprehensively the global problem of missing persons, to assist States in discharging their obligation to prevent persons from going missing, and to investigate missing persons cases effectively. The Agreement specifically calls for ICMP’s contribution to justice, strengthening the rule of law, and thus redressing past omissions in humanitarian law.