Missing and Disappeared Persons: The World in 2016

A selection of news stories from key areas around the world where the issue of enforced disappearance and missing persons represented a strategic challenge in 2016.

Mediterranean Migration

Despite efforts by a number of organizations, including ICMP, the number of fatalities among migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean rose in 2016, thousands of trafficking victims went missing, and families in war-stricken parts of Africa and the Middle East were forced to endure additional trauma through the “ambiguous loss” of not knowing the fate of a missing loved one. Reuters reported on 9 January that dozens of Ethiopian and Somali migrants had died in the waters off Somaliland when control of their vessel was lost. Ninety-six bodies were washed ashore.  Newsweek carried a story on 16 February saying that tighter restrictions on the Greece-Macedonia border were leading to refugees slipping off the authorities’ radar. “People who do not come from the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan cannot cross the borders. Therefore, they are trying to cross the border illegally making themselves potential victims of smuggling and trafficking,” said Fotini Barka, a spokesperson for the Greek Council for Refugees.  The Guardian reported on 5 May that almost 368,000 minors had sought asylum in Europe in 2015, the majority Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi. A quarter of all child refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 – almost 100,000 under-18s – travelled without parents or guardians and were “geographically orphaned”.  The Week, from the UK, reported on 20 June that the UN had warned of a worrying “climate of xenophobia” as 65 million people were forced to flee from their homes.  The Telegraph carried a story on 29 July on the testimony of volunteers and humanitarian workers helping migrants arriving from Libya.  IOM reported on 23 August that its Missing Migrants Project had recorded 23 percent more migrant deaths during the first half of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015. The BBC reported on 30 August that about 6,500 migrants had been rescued off Libya in one of the biggest operations of its kind to date. The Washington Post carried an article on 27 October analyzing the high mortality rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The Guardian reported on 3 November (http://bit.ly/2feFTvh) that Amnesty International had described how European migration policies have led to the alleged torture, abuse and illegal deportation of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Italy. On 19 December, the International Organization for Migration reported that 7,189 migrants and refugees had died or were missing on world migratory routes in 2016.

Iraq

The plight of the Ezidi community in Iraq was covered by media throughout 2016. Towards the end of the year, stories emerged of abductions, executions and mass graves related to the advance of Iraqi government forces and the withdrawal of Da’esh from the city of Mosul. CNN carried a story on 12 January on the brutality experienced by Ezidis at the hands of Da’esh, including the reported abduction of around 600 children from Sinjar and the surrounding Ezidi villages.  Human Rights Watch issued a report on 30 January saying that mass graves in northern Iraq were being disturbed and possibly compromised for any future prosecutions, according to an Ezidi support group.  The Rudaw network reported on 17 March that Kurdish authorities had selected 25 Ezidi mass graves to be presented to specialists from the International Criminal Court. On 28 March AhlulBayt News Agency quoted the head of ICMP’s Iraq Program as saying that efforts were underway to preserve the mass graves in Sinjar, and ICMP was training local experts to conduct exhumations of mass graves.  Rudaw reported on 30 March that four experts from ICMP’s Iraq Program had begun giving a four-day course to investigators on the proper handling of exhumation procedures.  CNN carried a story on 7 May saying that more than 50 mass graves had been discovered throughout Iraq as cities and villages were retaken from Da’esh, according to a UN special representative.  Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on 20 June on the legacy of Da’esh’s occupation of parts of northern Iraq. The Associated Press reported on 30 August on mass graves it had documented and mapped in Syria and Iraq, “the most comprehensive survey so far, with many more expected to be uncovered” as the territory controlled by Da’esh shrinks. On 18 October Amnesty International published an article on paramilitary militias and government forces in Iraq, which it said had committed serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearance. CNN reported on 17 November that Iraqi security forces had discovered two mass graves near Mosul containing around 250 bodies. Business Insider carried an AFP story on 20 December describing dozens of mass graves discovered in areas recaptured from Da’esh. On 22 December Scroll.in carried an article on the Da’esh campaign against Ezidi communities.

Egypt

In Egypt, civil society activists had already documented numerous cases by the beginning of the year that appeared to show the authorities using enforced disappearance to silence opposition. A pattern of apparently state-sponsored abductions continued to be reported during 2016. One case that gained international attention was that of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student studying at the University of Cambridge who was found dead in Cairo after being abducted on 25 January by men in plainclothes. He was researching enforced disappearances in Egypt at the time of his disappearance.  The Telegraph carried a story on 4 February on the abduction of Regeni.  The Independent carried a story on 10 March reporting that the European Parliament had unanimously condemned the Egyptian authorities’ “large-scale campaign of arbitrary detention” and the “long list of enforced disappearances” since June 2013. The report said the Egyptian Co-ordination for Rights and Freedoms had recorded 1,840 cases of enforced disappearance in 2015.  Newsweek carried a story on 18 May citing Egyptian human rights activists and groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as saying that Egypt was experiencing “the worst state repression in decades.” including widespread enforced disappearances. BBC News reported on 18 June on the Regeni case.  CNN carried a story on 13 July on a new Amnesty International report on human rights violations in Egypt. Amnesty International UK reported on 25 August on the case of Islam Khalil, whom it described as “one of hundreds” who had been disappeared in Egypt. CajNewsAfrica reported on 4 October that a new wave of enforced disappearances and a refusal by the authorities to provide information or recognize the abductions had worsened the country’s political crisis. The Guardian carried an in-depth analysis on 4 October on the Regeni case. Reuters reported on 1 November that Italian and Egyptian prosecutors had discussed Egypt’s investigation of the case, describing the talks as “positive”.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the administration of President Maithripala Sirisena began 2016 by continuing its efforts to establish a credible reconciliation program. The government faced criticism from some circles because proposed measures were less robust and less sweeping than had originally been promised and from others who were unhappy because the authorities appeared to be flirting with the possibility of allowing international jurors to play a role in Sri Lanka’s transitional justice mechanism. At the same time, there were reports that illegal detentions were continuing, allegations the government dismissed. The BBC reported on 21 January that President Sirisena had said that foreign judges and prosecutors should not be involved in investigating allegations of war crimes. He said the country did not need to “import” specialists. The New Indian Express reported on 2 February that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had cited the constitutional bar on the appointment of foreign nationals as judges in Sri Lankan courts. On 16 March The Daily Financial Times, Viva Lanka and the Colombo Gazette reported that ICMP and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation had held a roundtable discussion in Trincomalee to analyze requirements for a systematic and effective process to account for those missing as a result of more than 25 years of conflict.  Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 27 May noting that the Sri Lankan government had ratified the Convention against Enforced Disappearance but in the same week had created an Office of Missing Persons without promised consultations with families of the disappeared.  The Guardian carried an opinion piece on 27 June assessing the resolution of October 2015 co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka and the US, promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, which was adopted at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council.  Seithy News, a Tamil daily from Sri Lanka, reported on 26 July  that the Asian Human Rights Commission had criticized former President Mahinda Rajapaksa over his statement that “establishing the Office of Missing Persons is a betrayal of the armed forces”.  Human Rights Watch published an article on 22 August examining proposals for “accountable amnesty” in Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lanka Guardian reported on 27 October that even as Sri Lanka drafts a new law to counter terrorism, human rights activists and lawyers in the country fear it might be worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act they want repealed and replaced.

Colombia

On 26 February The Guardian reported that as part of the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a program to account for those missing as a result of the conflict was underway. Human rights groups applauded the effort but said it requires more resources.  The Latin American Herald Tribune reported on 11 March that the numbers of missing persons in Colombia “exceed those of any other country in the hemisphere and those of the majority of recent armed conflicts worldwide.” VICE News reported on 9 May that the number of families finding their loved ones could increase dramatically as peace talks advance. The BBC reported on 25 August on the peace agreement between the government and the FARC, which contains provisions for a systematic effort to account for the missing.  The OHCHR released a statement on 3 October saying that Colombia was to be reviewed for the first time by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, meeting in Geneva from 3 to 14 October. Telesur carried an article on 20 November about a report published by Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, which said 60,630 people had been forcibly disappeared during 45 years of conflict. Amnesty International published an article on 1 December on the ratification by Colombia’s Congress of a revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC.

Mexico

In Mexico, the effort to account for the 43 students who went missing in Guerrero state on 26 September 2014 and to apprehend and prosecute those responsible was bogged down as the authorities at various levels were accused of complicity and cover-up and as critics inside and outside Mexico pointed to a culture of impunity.  On 14 January Amnesty International issued a statement citing systemic incompetence and lack of will by State and Federal authorities to investigate thousands of disappearances in the country.  The Guardian reported on 24 February that nearly 17 months after the 43 students disappeared, President Enrique Peña Nieto had made his first visit to the city where the attack took place. However, he avoided a meeting with the missing students’ families, instead overseeing a military ceremony to celebrate the national flag. On 3 March Telesur reported that the Mexican Supreme Court had ordered the Attorney General’s Office to open an investigation into the killing of 72 migrants that occurred in August 2010 in the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where 58 men and 14 women from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil were killed. The remains of the bodies were found in 2011 in mass graves in the San Fernando region. Relatives of the victims claim that the investigations carried out so far have been inadequate. On 11 May ABC News carried a story about a museum in Mexico City that is exhibiting shoes of missing citizens. More than 60 pairs of shoes were donated by family members of people who disappeared, as reminders of how far they have walked in their search to find them. The Guardian reported on 12 July that Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission had released new findings in the case of the 43 students.  The Bueno Aires Herald reported on 24 October that officials had arrested Felipe Flores, the former police chief of the town of Iguala, where the 43 students disappeared. Opendemocracy.net published an interview on 16 November with Professor Sergio Aguayo from the Colegio de México and Stanford University who said that “from sheer helplessness” Mexicans are trying to cope with collusion between organized crime and law enforcement and political circles “which, instead of guaranteeing the security of citizens, fluctuate between complicity, brazen connivance and indifference to the suffering of the victims”. Telesur reported on 24 November on the “Caravan of Central American Mothers of Missing Migrants”, which seeks to raise awareness about the plight of thousands of missing migrants. After traveling through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and parts of southern Mexico, the 12th Caravan of Mothers of Missing Migrants had arrived in Mexico City.

China and Hong Kong

At the beginning of 2016, attention was drawn to the issue of enforced disappearance in China amid protests over the disappearance of five individuals connected to the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current, a publisher critical of some Chinese government officials. On 8 January Time Magazine reported a call by the European Union for an investigation into the disappearance of the five individuals, two of whom are EU citizens. On 2 February Voice of America reported a statement issued by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to a US call for clarification of the status of the five men. The statement denied that Chinese law enforcement officials had done anything illegal. Voice of America carried a story on 10 March saying that the US and Western countries had criticized “China’s ongoing problematic human rights record,” in an unprecedented joint statement issued during a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.  The joint statement called recent cases of unexplained disappearances and apparent coerced returns of Chinese and foreign citizens from outside mainland China “unacceptable” extraterritorial actions, as well as “out of step” with the expectations of the international community and “a challenge to the rules based international order.”  The BBC reported on 20 June that Hong Kong’s chief executive was to take up the disappearance of the booksellers with the central Chinese government in Beijing. Chinese Human Rights Defenders issued a statement on 29 August ahead of International Day of the Disappeared, noting that “since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, Chinese authorities have stepped up the abusive practice of subjecting human rights lawyers and other rights defenders to enforced disappearance, often by leveraging draconian domestic laws.” On 18 October Australian media company SBS reported on the case of the five booksellers, while Reuters carried an article on 6 December about a new report by Human Rights Watch on the corruption crackdown ordered by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which HRW said is reliant on a secret system of detentions and torture beyond the reach of the formal Chinese criminal justice system.

Nigeria

The kidnapping of 219 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014 from the town of Chibok in northern Nigeria – as well as abductions attributed to other groups, including the Nigerian military – continued to be among the main news stories in Nigeria in 2016. Ireland’s RTE News reported on 14 January that President Muhammadu Buhari had ordered a new investigation into the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. This came after parents of the girls and the ‘’Bring Back Our Girls’’ movement marched to the presidential villa to demand a meeting with Buhari.  Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 29 March saying that the Nigerian government should take urgent steps to secure the release of about 400 women and children, including at least 300 elementary school students, abducted by Boko Haram from the town of Damasak in Borno State in 2015. It was unclear whether the Nigerian government has made any serious effort to secure their release, it said. AllAfrica news portal reported on 14 March that two years after at least 640 recaptured detainees were killed by soldiers of the Nigerian Army, the authorities have failed to conduct an effective, impartial and independent investigation. The detainees, many of whom, it said, had been arbitrarily arrested in mass screening operations, were killed after they fled the barracks in Maiduguri, Borno state on 14 March 2014 following a Boko Haram attack. Sahara Reporters carried a story on 21 March saying that the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) had called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the massacre of nearly 1,000 civilians in Zaria in northern Nigeria in December 2015. According to the filing submitted by the IHRC, Nigerian soldiers attacked unarmed members and supporters of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. The IHRC said 217 civilians had been killed in the attacks, while 219 were in detention and another 482 were missing.  Amnesty International issued a statement on 14 May saying that accountability for human rights violations and abuses should be an indispensable part of the regional response to Boko Haram. On 13 October, the BBC reported on the release of 21 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, while YNaija reported on 18 October that the Nigerian Senate had been told that more than 1,000 persons were being held captive by the group. The Nigerian Guardian newspaper published an article on 22 December stating that 42 civil society organizations had called on the Federal Government and governors of Abia and Anambra states to initiate an independent investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations by security forces against supporters and activists of the Indigenous People of Biafra and other pro-Biafra organizations.

ICMP

In 2016, ICMP continued to develop new programs implementing the mandate it received under the 2014 treaty establishing it as an intergovernmental organization. ICMP organized conferences in Europe, North America and Asia to highlight the global challenge of missing persons and help coordinate the international response to this challenge. In July ICMP formally opened its new Headquarters in The Hague. Following a conference organized on 27 January at the UN Security-Council by ICMP and Britain’s representation at the United Nations, DEVEX carried an article by ICMP Chair Thomas Miller and ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger analyzing the global issue of missing persons. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 10 February that Australian forensic scientists were to take part in training programs co-directed by a forensic archaeologist who directed ICMP-led excavations and examinations in the Western Balkans.  Eyewitness News from South Africa reported on 17 February that three men had been convicted in a Johannesburg court of 1999 murder following a four-year investigation and a two-year legal battle in which DNA tests conducted by ICMP played a crucial role. Enterprise Innovation, a business publication from Asia, carried a story on 22 February saying that the government of Vietnam had signed a new contract as part of a 10-year project to identify at least 80,000 of 650,000 unidentified victims from the Vietnam War. Three laboratories will be upgraded with the latest forensic technology while consultancy and training will be provided by BioGlobe and ICMP. On 2 March El Pais of Costa Rica and El Ojo Digital of Argentina reported that Colombia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, Juan Jose Quintana, had hosted a meeting of diplomats from the Group of Latin American Countries (GRULAC) in The Hague to highlight ICMP’s work and to discuss the issue of missing and disappeared persons in the region. Countries in Latin America face complex challenges related to accounting for missing persons, but effective strategies have been developed to address this issue, ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said during the meeting. On 2 March The New York Times and other news outlets reported the death of dot.com entrepreneur Jim Kimsey, who was for many years Chairman of ICMP.  CBC News carried a story on 3 March saying that ICMP had been able to link human remains found in northern British Columbia two decades ago to a Prince Rupert teenager who went missing in 1981. Deutsche Welle carried a story on 18 March saying that with German support, the Vietnamese government has begun an effort to identify war dead. Experts pointed to the participation of ICMP, noting that it can share lessons learned in former Yugoslavia with the Vietnamese, the report said. NRC Handelsblad, a daily from the Netherlands, carried an interview on 30 May with ICMP Director-General Bomberger, who described the “psychological torture” experienced by those who do not to know the whereabouts of missing loved ones. Ms Bomberger reviewed ICMP’s evolution since 1996, when it was established to spearhead the effort to account for the 40,000 people who were missing as a result of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, until today, when it is active in different parts of the world, including an initiative to help account for missing migrants (article in Dutch). Interaksyon, a news portal from the Philippines, carried an AFP interview with Kathryne Bomberger on 30 May noting that between 250,000 and a million are missing in Iraq as a result of events over the last 40 years. ICMP and the Regional Coordination of Associations of Families of the Missing issued a statement on 14 June noting that with more than 28,000 of the 40,000 persons who were missing at the end of the war accounted for, the countries of the Western Balkans had established a new and successful model for addressing the issue of missing persons. Bhdani.ba, a weekly magazine from Bosnia and Herzegovina, carried on 16 June an extended interview with ICMP Director-General Bomberger, reviewing ICMP’s achievements over the last 20 years. Vecernjilist.ba, a daily newspaper from Bosnia and Herzegovina, carried an op-ed on 29 June by Director-General Bomberger marking ICMP’s 20th anniversary. Justice Info published an interview on 8 July with Director-General Bomberger on the 20th anniversary. ICMP and the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on 7 July that a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed between the two organizations. On 27 July, Diplomat Magazine carried a report on the opening of ICMP’s new headquarters in The Hague.