Preparing a Missing Persons Strategy for Libya

Libyan lawyers and other stakeholders meeting at a seminar in Istanbul on 11-12 May called on the parties preparing a national dialogue in Libya to make a formal commitment not only to work towards disclosing the fate of missing persons but to conduct investigations and also to safeguard the rights of families.

Legal experts, civil society activists and government representatives were participating in a seminar on “criminal procedure and the use of evidence in court-led processes on mass graves and missing persons in Libya”, organized by ICMP to help stakeholders develop a legal framework through which the missing persons issue can be addressed when the operating environment in the country stabilizes.

Fadeel Mohammed Atayeb Lameen, Chairman of the Libyan National Dialogue Preparatory Commission, welcomed the seminar’s recommendation highlighting the authorities’ obligations in the field of missing persons. “I think this will be useful to all those who are engaged in the process,” he said. “Dialogue is the last resort for those who are missing, and ICMP has played a positive role engaging the different parties.”

ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger noted that ICMP’s Declaration on the Role of States, signed by heads of state from the Western Balkans in August 2014, clearly articulates the responsibility of governments to account for the missing and provide for the welfare of families.

“As ICMP, we want to encourage the initiative to ensure that the authorities’ obligation to account for the missing – and, importantly, to carry out their obligations to the families of the missing – are incorporated in Libya’s transitional justice settlement,” Bomberger said. “This seminar has been a unique opportunity to put forward constructive ideas and we hope that these ideas will make a contribution to the dialogue that is now underway.”

Participants gave presentations on transitional justice strategies first introduced at a preparatory seminar organized by ICMP in The Hague at the beginning of February. The Hague seminar focused on how to expand the use of forensic evidence and how to clarify inter-institutional responsibilities and legal obligations to family members of the missing.

While considerable progress has been made in building the technical capacity of the Libyan authorities, there are crucial gaps in the institutional and legal framework that need to be addressed.

The scale of the problem in terms of numbers of reported missing in Libya, compared to countries such as Syria and Iraq, is lower.. A rough estimate of 10,000 missing persons is widely used. Credible efforts to begin accounting for this number of missing can be taken. However, with different groups claiming and exercising authority in different parts of the country, the rule of law has been severely jeopardized. Continued violence is increasing the number of missing persons daily, and at the same time Libya has become the crucible of a huge migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, with large numbers of prospective migrants going missing even before they reach the coast of the Mediteranean. The figure of 10,000 is unlikely to reflect reality for an extended period. Until the political situation in Libya improves significantly, the number of missing persons will continue to rise.

In due course, the Libyan legal system will have to be changed so as to facilitate the presentation of forensic evidence and improved documentation and data management systems will have to be establishedIn addition, sustainable inter-agency planning capability will have to be developed and regional and international cooperation in the field of justice will have to be improved.

Participants at the Hague seminar in February and the Istanbul seminar in May agreed that by preparing the ground now it will be possible, when conditions improve, to sustain a long-term effort to account for missing persons in Libya.

Experts from the Netherlands Forensic Institute, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court, the Libyan National Dialogue Preparatory Commission, and the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with Libyan academics, lawyers and activists participated in the seminars.

Since the end of 2011, ICMP has been actively engaged in helping the Libyan authorities to account for missing persons.