Ten Lessons from 20 Years Of Searching for the Missing


ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger sums up essential elements of a successful missing persons process, gleaned from ICMP’s unique mandate and experience.

Twenty years ago at the end of June, the G-7 leaders meeting in Lyon discussed the issue of more than 40,000 people who were missing from the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The leaders understood that such a large number of missing persons undermined prospects for lasting peace.

They also understood that accounting for the missing isn’t in the first instance a humanitarian exercise, but an exercise in upholding the rule of law.

US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, proposed the creation of an international blue ribbon commission. On 29 June 1996, the White House released a statement by President Clinton announcing the establishment of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

Today, more than 70 percent of the 40,000 persons missing in the Western Balkans have been accounted for, including 7,000 of the 8,000 missing from Srebrenica 1995.

In 2001 ICMP created a standing capacity to use DNA as the first line in conducting large-scale identifications of missing persons. This revolutionized the process and provided scientific evidence of identity that could be used for criminal trial purposes. ICMP also transformed how data is collected, safeguarded and shared in a manner that meets the privacy requirements of families of the missing and the obligation of states to find the missing. In 2003 it began to operate globally. Today, it is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization that is active throughout the world.

Over the last two decades, ICMP has developed a holistic approach to accounting for the missing that incorporates legislative initiatives, civil society advocacy and state-of-the-art technology.

Here are ten lessons we have learned:

  1. The issue of missing persons is a global challenge. Conflict in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in large numbers of people going missing (in Iraq the figure could be as high as one million) and has generated mass migration in which tens of thousands more have gone missing; at the same time, repressive governments are applying systematic policies of enforced disappearance as a means of exerting political control, while governments in democratic societies often show limited understanding of the social circumstances that can cause members of vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, to go missing in disproportionately high numbers.
  2. The issue of missing persons is not about the past: it is about managing the present and building for the future. It is not principally about the dead, but about the living. It is about asserting the rights of survivors – the right to know the fate of a loved one, the right to justice and the right to reparation. In missing persons cases arising from conflict, crime and human rights abuse, addressing the issue in an effective way of helping to prevent recurrence.
  3. Missing Persons can be accounted for. Just as the scale of the problem has become clearer in the last 20 years, so the capacity to address the problem has become greater. Effective political, social, legislative and scientific strategies make it possible to account for the missing with greater success than ever before. The fact that more than 70 percent of the missing from former Yugoslavia have been located and identified testifies to this.
  4. Governments have to be part of the process. Recalcitrant authorities can be called upon to honor their responsibilities. International and civil society partners can work successfully with authorities, including authorities that are unwilling or that lack institutional capacity, in order to establish sustainable processes to address the issue of missing persons.
  5. This is a rule-of-law issue. Clandestine graves are crime scenes; the perpetrators of enforced disappearance should be prosecuted. The oddest thing about this statement is that it has to be made at all. The same holds true for criminal enterprises that engage in the trafficking of children, resulting in their disappearance. In the context of the current migration crisis, for example, as many as 10,000 children are reported to have gone missing.
  6. Standards in data collection, use and protection must be adhered to. In the process of locating and identifying the missing, stakeholders, including families of the missing must have guarantees that their personal and genetic data will only be used for the purposes for which this data was provided.
  7. The majority of missing persons from conflict are male. Therefore, survivors are largely women and children, which means that programs to account for the missing must be tailored to meet their needs for justice, truth and reparation.
  8. Survivors have equal rights. Families of the missing, regardless of their religious, national, or ethnic origin, their gender, political orientation or the role of their missing relative during conflict or cases of human rights abuse, have equal rights to the truth, to justice and to reparation. Survivors are the primary stakeholders in the process of accounting for the missing.
  9. The definition of who is a “missing person” must be broadened. A missing person can be someone missing from conflict, human rights abuses (including enforced disappearance), disasters, organized crime, forced migration or any scenario where persons go missing for involuntary reasons. Often, it is difficult to distinguish between the range of circumstances.  For example, a Syrian escaping the conflict may have missing relatives not only from the conflict, but from the migration crisis and from maritime disasters in the Mediterranean.
  10. Accounting for the missing is key to good governance, stability and economic development. You can only build peace on a foundation of justice, and large numbers of missing persons constitute a fundamental injustice. If this issue is not dealt with in a vigorous, public and just way, it will undermine overall recovery.

Understanding these lessons will deliver significant results in in strengthening governmental responsibilities to address missing persons issues throughout the world.