Rights-Based Strategies to Account for the Missing

Stockholm, 1 June 2017: Concrete and effective scientific, legal, political and social strategies can help governments and stakeholders to account for the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing as a result of conflict, disasters and other causes, Her Majesty Queen Noor said in Stockholm on Wednesday. Queen Noor was speaking at the opening of a “Profiles of the Missing” conference organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons and hosted by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

Queen Noor emphasized that implementing these strategies “is how we can most constructively honor and remember the missing and how we can secure the rights of those who have been left behind.”

Speakers from around the world shared their personal experiences, and explained the rights-based, rule-of-law approach that families of the missing have developed in order to ensure that authorities take all necessary steps to locate and identify their loved ones. Participants also examined emotional, social and political aspects of seeking truth, justice and reparation.

“We need to think in political and diplomatic terms,” ICMP Commissioner Rolf Ekeus said. “The issue of missing persons is a matter of conflict prevention. It is necessary to develop legal and institutional mechanisms and to apply cutting-edge technologies, including database technologies. What we are doing is getting families the right to reparation.”

“We have waited for justice,” said Munira Subasic, of the Mothers of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “and the greatest injustice is to wait for justice. Try to imagine what it’s like for us mothers to live day after day and not know where our children are.”

Mrs Subasic said many of the atrocities – enforced disappearance and mass executions – that had been witnessed in Bosnia and Herzegovina were now being repeated in Syria.

Dalal Ali Khairo, a member of the Ezidi community in Iraqi Kurdistan, gave a moving testimony of the plight of women and girls in the Ezidi community after the Da’esh occupation of Sinjar – and she stressed that “ISIS committed these atrocities not knowing that one day we would be able to tell all of this to you.” Accounting for the missing involves the public exposure of perpetrators and the long-term prospect of justice.

Rebecca Sjöstrand, whose cousin was one of more than 500 Swedish victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, spoke of months of “limbo”, when it was impossible to grieve. She stressed that in the days after the disaster, the Swedish authorities were unable to provide families with information. “This was heartbreaking and added to the trauma we were experiencing. Families had to rely on themselves.”

Noura Al-Jizawi, a human rights activist from Syria, described the experience of arbitrary detention which she and members of her family experienced. She now works with victims of enforced disappearance and families of the missing. “We can support one another. We can tell all the families in Syria and around the world that they are not alone.”

Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a post-trauma psychologist working with Ezidi victims of enforced disappearance, pointed out that large numbers of Ezidi remain in captivity and the community is under constant threat. “How can you treat people for post-traumatic stress when the trauma is not over?” he asked.

ICMP Commissioner Sanji M. Monagen, who is a judge at the International Criminal Court, said a common theme in all of the panelists’ contributions was the need for justice. “Justice is a human right, a right that should not be compromised. It is non-negotiable. Under international law, when missing persons are direct victims, their families are indirect victims and can obtain reparations.”

ICMP Commissioner Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai Foreign Minister and Secretary-General of ASEAN, said there was a need to highlight the responsibilities of governments to account for the missing. He said the testimony of panelists at Profiles of the Missing “will spur us to action and lead us to sensible ways of organizing the response to the issue of missing persons.”

ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said the need for coordinated missing persons programs in countries such as Nigeria was clear, but that ICMP’s capacity to respond to this need is predicated on the willingness of donors to fund country programs. She said ICMP was doing everything possible to raise funds so that it can operate in a larger number of countries.

ICMP Chair Thomas Miller noted that the global challenge of missing persons is not limited to developing countries or countries at war, and he cited the difficulties experienced by the US authorities when they tried to account for all of the missing from Hurricane Katrina.

Profiles of the Missing is part of a series of conferences on the issue of missing persons that is being organized by ICMP. Themes from the Profiles series will be developed at the Global Forum on Missing Persons, which ICMP will convene in 2018. The Global Forum will bring together policymakers, legal experts, academics, civil society activists and others to enhance the international response to the large numbers of people who go missing a result of conflict, organized crime, migration and natural and manmade disaster.

ICMP is an international organization based in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating and identifying 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.

The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) is an independent platform for research, analysis and information on international relations and foreign policy. The Institute’s mission is to inform and enrich the public debate by promoting interest in and knowledge of international relations and foreign policy. This mission is pursued through our research, seminars and by presence in the media.