A Moral and Legal Challenge

By Kathryne Bomberger,

In the course of today, in every part of the world, people will disappear.

Syria, Libya, Burundi, and Sudan are in the midst of unrest where enforced disappearance has become a politico-military tactic. 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.

Given that the majority of those who go missing in conflict are men, multiple social obstacles and risks accrue to women survivors, who may be rendered more vulnerable to abusive behavior, including sexual exploitation.

The issue of missing and disappeared persons has intensified in the course of the last two decades. Climate change and environmental degradation have led to natural disasters and mass migration. Around 300,000 perished in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many of them buried in mass graves without any identification. In Central America, in the Mediterranean, and across South Asia, tens of thousands of people are missing as a result of irregular migration.

Political instability in many parts of the world has resulted in endemic human rights abuses. Activists and dissidents in authoritarian states face the daily threat of incommunicado detention. They will leave for work; visit a government office; get into a car in the company of unidentified men – and they will not be heard from for months or years, perhaps forever.

The common factor in these different circumstances of disappearance is that families are condemned to a lifetime’s agony, the agony of not knowing the fate of a loved one.

It is good to remember this as we mark the International Day of the Disappeared.

While the issue of missing persons is only one facet of human security globally, it is a crucial one. Failure to account for large numbers of persons who go missing for involuntary reasons weakens the rule of law. State responsibility and state action are therefore essential.

Although the picture is bleak, it isn’t hopeless. Legal frameworks to account for the missing have been continuously strengthened in order to define the responsibilities of states more clearly. And social and scientific strategies have been developed that make it possible to account for more missing persons than would have been imagined even 20 years ago. In the Western Balkans, for example, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has spearheaded an effort that has made it possible to account for well over 70 percent of the 40,000 people who went missing in the conflicts of the 1990s, including 7,000 of the 8,000 men and boys who disappeared in the Srebrenica Genocide.

At last November’s “Peace Forum” convened in Paris by President Emmanuel Macron, ICMP presented Eight Principles that sum up the obligations of governments to account for missing persons.

The Paris Principles assert that resolving the fate of missing and disappeared persons and protecting persons against disappearance are integral to fulfilling the responsibility of states to support peace, reconciliation and social cohesion, and are key elements in upholding basic human rights. The Principles highlight the fact that missing persons investigations must be capable of establishing the facts, and that cooperation among states and international institutions is indispensable. They also emphasize that persons who go missing or are victims of enforced disappearance are entitled to protection under the law, regardless of citizenship or residence status, and that all measures to address the issue of missing migrants, for example, must uphold and advance the rule of law.

If governments fail to take effective steps to account for missing persons – as a result of irregular migration, natural or man-made disasters, or for other reasons – they risk losing the public trust. In this sense, accounting for the missing is an indispensable element in upholding confidence in public institutions and the full implementation of the rule of law.

Accounting for the missing is a moral obligation, but it is also – and this is crucial – a legal obligation; fulfilling this obligation advances and strengthens the rule of law. On the International Day of the Disappeared, it is appropriate that we renew our commitment to meeting the global challenge of missing persons, building institutions as we do so that are more just and that merit the public trust.

Kathryne Bomberger is Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). ICMP is a treaty-based international 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. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons.