The Hague, 20 June 2023 – In the face of a huge surge in the number of missing persons, Ukraine “must develop a more efficient and more humane state strategy on missing persons so that people facing this terrible situation will not be alone,” Nobel Laureate Oleskandra Matviychuk said today at a meeting organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) at its Headquarters in The Hague.
During a public discussion on efforts to establish an effective missing persons process in Ukraine, Ms Matviychuk, who is Head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, emphasized the scale of the challenge, with tens of thousands of people reported missing since the Russian invasion in February last year, adding to those already being sought following the initial Russian invasion of 2014.
During the event – “Profiles of the Missing: Voices of Ukrainian Families” – relatives of the missing spoke about their experience and called for a sustainable missing persons process as a vital investment in peace and justice.
Her Majesty Queen Noor, who is an ICMP Commissioner, highlighted the gender aspect of the missing persons issue. “In conflict – when most of the missing are men – it falls to women to take over multiple roles. Some of these roles involve confronting bureaucracy, fighting for the rights of families – for the provision of education, welfare and other resources. These women are not seeking favors; they are not seeking special treatment – they are seeking truth, justice and reparations and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they are able to exercise their right to these things.”
Ukraine’s Minister of Justice, Denys Maliuska, in a pre-recorded video, stressed that ICMP’s program in the country “is premised on upholding the rule of law. The Ukrainian Government is cooperating with international partners to bring war criminals to justice, and ICMP’s emphasis on ensuring that all evidence collected during missing persons investigations is admissible in court is an important element in this.”
ICMP Chairman Thomas Miller said ICMP can use its experience from operating programs around the world for more than a quarter of a century to help Ukraine meet the challenge it faces. “We are in the process of completing a Cooperation Agreement with Ukraine, which will enable ICMP to roll out a program with the authorities, including an outreach program to reach 100,000 Ukrainian families.”
ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger emphasized that families have a fundamental right to truth, justice, and reparation. “We recognize your courage,” she told the Ukrainian participants. “The work you are doing to account for the missing – despite the pain, despite the risk, despite the challenges – commands respect and practical solidarity.”
Stephen J. Rapp, who served between 2009 and 2015 as US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, noted that “civil society is the most powerful force for justice,” and he stressed that “families are entitled to justice as a matter of international law and that evidence that gathered as part of the missing persons process “is fundamental to the justice process”.
Olena Bieliachkova, Coordinator of Groups of Families of Prisoners of War for the civil society organization Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIHR), highlighted the issue of mass deportations of Ukrainian children, warning that the official figure of 19,400 is likely to be a significant underestimate.
Maryna Lypovetska, Project Manager at the All-Ukrainian Association “Magnolia”, founded to protect the rights of vulnerable children and families, spoke about a case where “one parent was killed and the other parent did not know what happened to the child. We have tried to find out if the child was taken to Russia. Then the surviving parent would have the choice of risking their life to save the child.”
Nataliia Zartyska, Head of the Association of Families “Women of Steel”, wife of a released soldier of the Azov battalion explained that “from our own experience we know that families of the missing struggle with legal problems. This’s why we have organized work on renewing and preparing documents, and why we have engaged lawyers and advocates to protect everybody who needs help in the search for truth.”
Hanna Demydenko a member of the Women Veterans Movement and the Legal Hundred, described a switchboard service set up to respond to requests for information from families, with multiple queries related to what is perceived as a lack of activity on the part of the authorities and also the cumbersome task of obtaining official documents.
Ksenia Onyshchenko, a lawyer with the SICH Human Rights group, pointed out that “in military units there are official lists of missing in action, but no one notifies the family when a civilian disappears.”
The discussion was moderated by Ukrainian radio and TV presenter Andriy Kulykov, who pointed out that the unified registry established in May this year had recorded 20,000 missing persons cases by the middle of June.
Anatolii Solovei, Minister-counsellor at the Ukrainian Embassy in The Hague, said, “the rule of law cannot fall victim to the rule of might” and he thanked ICMP for its assistance to Ukraine. “At the beginning of this month, Ministry of Justice and Health forensic experts visited ICMP’s lab in The Hague. Practical cooperation of this kind with ICMP will definitely help Ukrainian investigators so that the evidence they collect in the field will help thousands of Ukrainian families to find missing persons and ensure the admissibility of this evidence in international court. We are willing to work with ICMP to make all these things possible.”
Peter Wagner, Director and Head of FPI, highlighted the fact that the missing persons process in Ukraine “is being developed on the basis of the rule of law, and this is what makes it an investment in justice and accountability.”
Acting Assistant US Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Erin M. Barclay said the United States had an “unwavering commitment to ensure that all missing persons are not forgotten.” She said “the scope of abuses and atrocities committed by Russia’s authorities and forces” is only now becoming apparent. “In meeting with Ukrainian civil society partners we often hear a plea for the international community to increase its focus on the tens of thousands of civilians detained by Russia’s forces. The families of those detained often have no way to contact or trace the location of their loved ones because of Russia barring family members, lawyers and international monitoring groups from meeting with those they hold in custody.”
Concluding the discussion, ICMP Commissioner María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, saluted the “remarkable instances of solidarity, of courage, and of resolve,” shown by the families from Ukraine. “These families are not going to give up: they represent a powerful force. I believe we can come away from this discussion with a sense of optimism – key problems have been identified and realistic solutions have been proposed. A huge amount of work must now be done, but we are not working in the dark. We have a clear idea of what must be done and I believe increasingly we have the resources to take the action that is required.”
ICMP’s Profiles of the Missing is part of a global discussion forum convened by ICMP that brings together policymakers, legal experts, academics, civil society activists and others to share experiences and best practice in developing institutional, societal and technical solutions to address the global challenge of missing and disappeared persons.
ICMP has been assisting the authorities in Ukraine since 2014. Immediately after the 2022 invasion, the authorities in Kyiv asked ICMP to expand its activities. Under a program launched in late 2022, ICMP will mount an Outreach Campaign in Ukraine to encourage families to report missing relatives, and a data collection campaign to facilitate DNA-based identifications and to support investigations. ICMP is facilitating the engagement of families in the process, in particular by supporting the development of a civil society platform comprising family associations and human rights CSOs; providing continuous learning and development opportunities in all aspects of the missing persons process for key domestic institutions, including prosecutors, investigators and forensic experts; strengthening the investigative capabilities of the Bureaus of forensic medical expertise; and augmenting the data processing capacities of Ukrainian authorities by enabling access to ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System (iDMS).
ICMP’s Ukraine Program is supported by the Government of Canada, the European Union Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), and the US State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), and the German Federal Foreign Office.
ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so.