Missing Persons: from Trauma to Effective Action

Queen Noor

By Her Majesty Queen Noor

Across the world from central America to southeast Asia people are on the move, desperately seeking to escape violence and poverty, while in large parts of the Middle East and Central Africa full-scale conflict is causing untold misery to millions.

We are all too familiar, now, with images of mass graves and of desperate families struggling to cross dangerous seas and inhospitable terrain. This is what we can see. There are tens of thousands who perish, whose bodies are never identified, whose deaths are never recorded – multiple tragedies that are not seen. Aid agencies have been warning for months, for example, that fatality rates among those trying to cross the Mediterranean may be just a fraction of the overall death rate, since thousands disappear in the Sahara desert before they reach the Libyan transit ports.

The total number of those who go missing increases substantially when you add the victims of civil rights abuses, crime and natural and man-made disasters.

Addressing this issue is a global challenge.

When one person goes missing, many more people are affected by the “ambiguous loss” of someone who cannot be confirmed dead and who cannot be buried. In post-conflict societies, large numbers of missing persons mean that tens of thousands of people cannot move forward with the process of recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation. They are tethered to a violent past by a tragedy that cannot be closed. In the context of migration it means that there are tens of thousands of families who will never know the fate of loved ones who have been forced to leave their homes and who will likely never return.

In June, the International Commission on Missing Persons marked its 20th anniversary, which was an opportunity to review how the international response to the issue of missing persons has evolved over the last two decades and how ICMP’s role has evolved as part of that development.

ICMP was founded in 1996 to spearhead the effort to account for the missing in the former Yugoslavia. Twenty years later, an unprecedented more than 70 percent of those people have been accounted for. Following on from its achievement in the Western Balkans, ICMP today is active throughout the world, working with governments to establish legal frameworks, technical capacity and social consensus that makes it possible to launch and sustain effective strategies to account for the missing.

One of the countries where I have worked most closely on the issue of missing persons is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I first visited in 1996, after the fall of Srebrenica, bringing humanitarian aid from Jordan. Over the past 20 years I have worked with families in Bosnia and Herzegovina and throughout the Balkans who lost parents, siblings, children. Having witnessed the barbarity of the deaths of their loved ones from within their mass graves, I have been inspired beyond words by the survivors’ faith and courage to move from trauma to effective action, from grief to an overwhelming and powerful commitment not to revenge but to justice.

This heartening humanity and dynamism of survivors and civil society groups is also evident in our work around the world, in Syria, in Iraq, in Chile and Argentina and Mexico, in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and Nepal.

Under domestic and international law, survivors have a right to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Authorities cannot choose whether to support efforts to account for the missing: they are obliged to support these efforts. Police, judicial officials and others – from the municipal counter-clerk to the head of government – have a mandatory obligation to support families of the missing. ICMP works closely with families through a range of interrelated programs designed to help them come together and assert their right to the truth and to have perpetrators brought to justice.

Today, across the world we see a rise in xenophobia, in a primitive, unthinking kind of nationalism, and accompanying this is a growing pressure to withhold solidarity and sympathy from whole categories of people. This is fuel for the geopolitical developments that result in large numbers of missing persons, whether from forced migration or human rights abuses or outright conflict.

As ICMP marks its 20th anniversary I believe it has become more and more clear that its international role is indispensable in mitigating human suffering and in supporting the broad effort to maintain global stability.

HM Queen Noor has been an ICMP Commissioner since 2001