The Search for the Missing In Post-Conflict Colombia


The Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Long-lasting Peace, signed by the Government of Colombia and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), creates a foundation on which work can begin to establish social and political processes that embed peace.

The decision by 50.24 percent of voters in Colombia’s 2 October referendum to reject the agreement means that provisions will have to be renegotiated, but a ceasefire remains in place and talks were set to resume in Havana immediately after the referendum result was announced.  The coming months are crucial: the opportunity to change the direction of a society that has endured violence since the middle of the last century must be seized in a decisive way.

ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger, welcomed the announcement in August that the Government and the FARC had reached agreement at the Havana talks. “The conclusion of the negotiations is a historic step on Colombia’s long and difficult road to peace,” she said. “ICMP is committed to working with families of the missing, the authorities and others in Colombia to ensure that the issue of missing persons is addressed in an effective, inclusive, sustainable and just manner.”

The Colombian Center for Historical Memory (CEH) estimates that over the last four decades, more than 90,000 people have gone missing.  The Government puts the figure at around 70,000. There is general agreement that paramilitaries, guerillas, organized crime, and government forces have all been involved in disappearances.

The elements of the peace agreement that deal with the issue of missing persons assign a specific role to ICMP, which is tasked with providing recommendations on establishing a Search Unit to account for those who have gone missing. ICMP will also seek to provide input on international best practice and facilitate the work of the Search Unit and any other related institutions as required.

ICMP has been helping Colombia to account for missing persons since 2008 when, following a request from the authorities, it presented the government with a comprehensive assessment of what was needed in order to launch and maintain an effective missing persons program. ICMP supported the work of the Colombian National Search Commission and it assisted in the compilation of the first official public report in Colombia on the issue of enforced disappearance, published in 2009. ICMP also helped to create the first Colombian policy document on forced disappearance, in 2009 (CONPES 3590), and it greatly contributed to drafting Law 1408, of 2010, under which a unified database for DNA-based identifications of missing persons was established. ICMP has also trained Colombian scientists in DNA techniques.

“The Search Unit and the work of other relevant institutions involved in the issue of missing persons will be measured by their capacity to adopt a sustainable plan, by the quantitative results they produce, and by their capacity to account for all categories of the missing,” Ms Bomberger said.  “All the relevant institutions will require adequate coordination, technical capacity, and sustained political will, and must also secure the trust and voluntary participation of civil society and families of the missing in all regions and sectors of the country.”

ICMP is now preparing to provide assistance to the government in the implementation of the peace agreement, which includes the adoption of necessary legislative measures, institution building, and ensuring the availability of information systems to collect, manage, analyze and protect data that is critical to accounting for missing persons.

ICMP will support relevant institutions and offer assistance to associations of families of the missing and it will provide access to technology including its Integrated Data Management System (iDMS) and Online Inquiry Center (OIC).

One of the pioneering aspects of the Colombian peace agreement is that it includes perspectives of women. Pressure by women’s groups resulted in the creation of a gender sub-commission during peace negotiations tasked with ensuring that women’s perspectives were presented. The sub-commission also ensured the representation of the rights of LGBTI communities. The conflict in Colombia and the issue of the missing has had, and continues to have, a particular and traumatic impact on women. Many have been left as single heads of households and are therefore required to carry out roles traditionally reserved for men, while facing social, cultural and land ownership obstacles. Women and girls have also been targeted victims of gross human rights abuses, including sexual violence. A victim-centered approach requires a strong focus on the most disadvantaged and this is why one of ICMP’s priorities will be to focus on strengthening the voice of widows and improving the support available to female-led households.