Accounting for the Missing Is an Investment in Peace

ReliefWeb – By Kathryne Bomberger

The Paris Peace Forum, opened by French President Emmanuel Macron last weekend, highlighted the complexities of international conflict through the very profusion of proposed solutions that were presented by organizations and governments. One conclusion that emerged from the three-day event with great clarity is that conflict prevention must be a collective effort.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) used its participation at the Paris conference to launch a global initiative to advance the responsibility of States in accounting for all persons who go missing or have disappeared for involuntary reasons.

This is a key element in ICMP’s contribution to conflict prevention.

Speaking at the Paris Peace Forum, I highlighted the fact that there has been a historic shift in the global understanding of the missing persons issue since 1996, when ICMP was established. Today, the issue is increasingly viewed in a rule-of-law context.

Governments that are faced with the challenge of accounting for large numbers of missing persons as a result, for example of irregular migration or natural disasters, have a legal obligation to take effective steps to account for the missing. If they fail to do this, they undermine the rule of law, and they risk losing the public trust.

Where people disappear as a result of conflict or human rights abuses, investigations carried out to rule-of-law standards – even decades after the event – can make it possible to prosecute those who were responsible for the original crime.

Some governments will claim that they lack the resources to fulfill their obligations; others will seek to deny that they have any obligations in the first place, either as a political posture or through a misunderstanding of domestic and international law. However, the right to dignity and to life, the right not to be subjected to torture or degrading treatment, the right to a family life and to privacy, and the right to recognition as a person before the law – are all invoked by a person going missing or disappearing.

This is why ICMP presented eight principles at the Paris Peace Forum, which lay out the obligations of governments, and which we believe can serve as an invaluable tool of peacebuilding:

  • States have a responsibility to resolve the fate of missing persons
  • Fundamental human rights are invoked when a person goes missing
  • Investigations must be capable of establishing the facts
  • Effective responses require cooperation between states and with international institutions
  • Meaningful investigations ensure that individuals are not denied protections under the law
  • Establishing cause and manner of death is fundamental in upholding the right to the truth
  • All missing persons investigations are potential criminal investigations and must be conducted as such
  • Actions to address the issue of missing and disappeared persons must uphold and advance the rule of law

In Central America today, in the Mediterranean, and across South Asia, tens of thousands of people are missing as a result of irregular migration. At the same, countries such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, and – even after the passage of nearly half a century – Vietnam are trying to address a huge and painful legacy of missing persons from past conflicts. In the meantime, Syria, Libya, Burundi, and Sudan, to cite just a few examples, are in the midst of conflicts where enforced disappearance is common.

This is a brief and incomplete survey, but I believe it highlights the need for governments to embrace their responsibilities.

ICMP’s participation at the Paris Peace Forum was supported by the European Union’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace, part of the extensive support that the EU has provided for our programs around the world. Having launched the initiative in Paris, we will now undertake an international consultation on how governments can apply the eight principles. ICMP will do this through its Global Forum, which brings together officials, civil society organizations and others to examine key aspects of the missing persons process and propose practical and coordinated global strategies.

We believe that this is a worthwhile way of marking the centenary of a catastrophic war, and at the same time a valuable contribution to the collective effort to avoid a recurrence of conflict. Put simply, accounting for the missing is an investment in peace.

Kathryne Bomberger is the Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons