Latin America and the Missing

At the beginning of March Colombia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, Juan Jose Quintana, hosted a meeting of diplomats from the Group of Latin American Countries in The Hague. Participants discussed the issue of missing and disappeared persons in the region.

Countries in Latin America face complex challenges related to accounting for missing persons. Several countries are grappling with issues related to transitional justice as families seek to learn the fate of loved ones who were victims of enforced disappearance under former regimes. In other countries, the rise of narco-trafficking syndicates has fomented an epidemic of disappearances with casualty figures in some cases surpassing those associated with full-scale military conflict. And at the same time, the flow of migrants from Central and South America to North America has fueled a lucrative and shockingly brutal trade in which large numbers of migrants perish at the hands of traffickers.

Overall, the numbers run into the tens of thousands. However, there are effective strategies that governments and other stakeholders can implement in order to address the issue, working with one another and with international agencies, Kathryne Bomberger, the Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons, said during the meeting.

She noted that the issue of missing persons is a global challenge. Legislative initiatives that have worked in one country may work in other countries. Also, where the issue is multilateral – for example, when it comes to the large numbers of people who go missing on migration routes – a multinational approach is essential.

“ICMP has been working in countries in the region for almost a decade,” Ms Bomberger said. “We believe that we can make a continuing contribution to efforts to consolidate peace and stability by preventing the issue of missing persons from becoming a threat to political settlements and social stability. This can be done if governments fulfil their obligations and work with stakeholders to implement a rule-of-law approach.”

In 2015, El Salvador and Chile signed the Agreement on the Status and Functions of the International Commission on Missing Persons. The Agreement does not entail any financial obligations on the part of signatories but allows countries to participate more fully in a global dialogue on the issue of the missing. It also facilitates ICMP engagement in signatory countries. Ms Bomberger invited countries represented at the briefing to consider signing the ICMP Agreement.

ICMP maintained successful programs in Colombia from 2008 to 2010. Following recent progress towards a peace agreement, options are being explored to renew its assistance.

ICMP has also maintained long-term programs with Chile and El Salvador, and it worked with the authorities in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and with the authorities in Havana following a plane crash in central Cuba in 2010. In addition, ICMP is working with civil society groups and judicial authorities in northern Mexico on an initiative to develop a central database and reporting mechanism for missing persons.

The Hague briefing was attended by representatives of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela.