Missing Persons: a Global Challenge


In May, the ICMP and the Embassy of the United Kingdom organized a seminar in The Hague to discuss the global challenge of missing persons. The participants included diplomats and representatives of international organizations, national and local authorities. As a result of migration, conflict and political instability, natural and man-made disasters and organized crime, an alarming number of people around the world go missing every day. Lack of political will, weakened rule – of- law institutions and alienated civil society in countries around the world leads these missing and disappeared to remain unaccounted for. For example, in the Philippines, there are still 2,000 missing after Typhoon Haiyan struck in November 2013; in Iraq the numbers are astounding – between 250,000 and a million remain missing; in Colombia the numbers are believed to be anywhere from 49,000 to 79,000; as a result of migration hundreds of people have been drowned at sea and many others fell victims to human trafficking and smuggling. The ICMP believes this global challenge can be addressed by adopting a systematic and coordinated approach by governments and other stakeholders. ICMP’s mandate was recognized to secure the co-operation of governments and other authorities in locating and identifying persons missing as a result of armed conflicts, human rights abuses, natural and man-made disasters and other involuntary reasons and to assist them in doing so.

Addressing the issue of missing persons is an important element of transitional justice and an indispensable component to efforts at ending impunity. As Mr. Agustín Vásquez Gómez of the embassy of El Salvador said during ICMP’s seminar, accounting for the missing “is fundamental to establishing peace”. In countries where hundreds of thousands of friends and family members still wait to hear about their missing friends and relatives, many hoping for their return and many also waiting to bury the dead, securing long lasting and sustainable peace, ending criminal activities and rebuilding shattered societies can hardly be achieved. Mr. Kweku Vanderpuye, Senior Trial Lawyer at the International Criminal Court, stressed at the seminar that “addressing the issue of the missing is crucial to the investigation of mass atrocity crimes to bring to account the perpetrators of these offences.”

To address the issue of missing and disappeared persons, ICMP has developed a strategy that includes securing the support of relevant authorities and institutions, helping to organize civil society engagement and the engagement of families of the missing, supporting the creation and implementation of appropriate legislation, and applying state-of-the-art scientific techniques to locating and identifying the missing. Sir Geoffrey Adams, the Ambassador of the United Kingdom in The Hague believes ICMP, tasked exclusively to account for the missing, could play a key role in addressing this issue around the world.

Highlighting the role civil society members and family associations can play in effective accounting for the missing, presenters at the seminar in The Hague also included Ms. Munira Subasic, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves and Ms. Olgica Bozanic of the Regional Coordination of Families of the Missing. Both speakers stressed the role family associations in the Western Balkans played to lobby the authorities to fulfill their obligations to families of the missing and how ICMP had helped family associations to lobby for legislation to account for the missing and support their families. Many of the Western Balkans family associations, from different ethnic backgrounds, have recognized the common problem they share and joined efforts to actively participate in the search for their missing relatives.  As a result, and with ICMP’s help, over 70 percent of the 40,000 missing from the wars of the 1990s have been accounted for. However, many still remain missing and many families still wait to hear about their fate and whereabouts.

ICMP presenters at the seminar explained key components of an effective effort to account for the missing. These include addressing the needs of states and civil society, using modern forensic methods for location and identification, and developing and deploying customized data systems with data protection. A successful missing persons process is law based, rights based, sustainable, transparent, accountable to stakeholders, inclusive and non-discriminatory.

To further build capacity of accounting for the missing and disappeared persons, ICMP will, in the near future, seek to harness new scientific methods to enhance its standing capacity in DNA-based human identification. It will establish a Center of Excellence for Training in The Hague, and it will expand access to its Integrated Data Management System (iDMS) so that it can be utilized online from anywhere in the world. ICMP will also endeavor to bring the cross-cutting issue of missing persons onto the agenda of a growing number of partner organizations and governments. Among other things, it will bring international organizations together in regular meetings of an Inter-Agency Committee on Missing Persons in The Hague, and it will launch a Global Forum on Missing Persons, at which representatives of government and civil society will join academics, scientists and others to advance an international discourse on missing persons.