Meeting the Challenge of Missing Persons: ICMP Becomes Treaty-Based International Organization

Desde México a Siria, una epidemia de casos de personas desaparecidas. Los gobiernos toman iniciativa para abordar el problema global, firmando el tratado de ICMP.

The case of the 43 abducted Mexican students has drawn the world’s attention to the issue of enforced disappearances. Yet the Mexican case is no more than a microcosm of a global problem – an epidemic of missing persons has arisen from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, from the effects of migration in Asia and the Americas, and from the continuing political and social upheavals across Africa, to cite just a few instances.

This is a global problem and it demands a global response.

Part of this global response was put in place on 15 December in the form of an international agreement signed in Brussels by the foreign ministers of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg and Sweden. The Agreement establishes the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) as a treaty-based international organization in its own right with its own structure of governance and international capacities.

ICMP is designated as the world’s specialized organization to address the global problem of missing persons in a comprehensive way and to assist States in discharging their obligation to investigate missing persons cases effectively. The Agreement specifically calls for ICMP’s contribution to justice, strengthening the rule of law, and thus redressing omissions in humanitarian law.

ICMP, which was established at the behest of US President Bill Clinton in 1996 to secure the cooperation of governments and other authorities in locating and identifying persons missing as a result of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, has developed effective tools to address the issue of missing persons, not only in the former Yugoslavia but, since 2003, throughout the world.

Tackling the issue of missing persons has until recently been widely viewed from a predominantly humanitarian perspective. ICMP works on the premise that searching for the missing can be undertaken most efficiently through a rule-of-law based approach. Accounting for the missing – from war, crime, repression, migration or natural disaster – is a state obligation, and that’s why it must be undertaken by government institutions.

In addition to applying modern forensic methods and standards, and utilizing advanced database informatics and protection, ICMP works to ensure that families are at the center of efforts to find the missing. This is about empowering people who have suffered trauma and tragedy and who often face the daunting task of dealing with unfamiliar and often unresponsive official institutions.

Until now, ICMP’s work has relied principally on the agreements it has reached with governments in the Western Balkans and with other international organizations such as INTERPOL and the IOM. As a result of the new international agreement, there is now an effective instrument with which to address the issue of missing persons through law-based mechanisms, modern forensic methods and civil society engagement.

It also means that the process of searching for the missing will be viewed within an overarching context that includes holding those responsible for disappearances to account.

This week’s treaty is a logical next step for ICMP, which in the last decade has effectively written the playbook on how to respond to the problem of missing persons. It gives the organization a firm international footing and it advances human rights and the rule of law globally.

That is good news for ICMP, and great news for the rest of the world.