ICRC: “The humanitarian tragedy of missing persons urgently requires a more determined international response”

Madame Chair,

Thank you for convening a meeting on this important topic and for inviting the ICRC to speak.

Staggering numbers of people are going missing in today’s conflicts. Individuals, families and communities are traumatized by the devastating and often long-lasting impact of these absences.

The ICRC registered 40,000 cases of missing persons last year, more than in any other year in the last two decades.

This alarming number of persons going missing – be it from battlefield casualties, shortcomings in registering detainees, or enforced disappearances – demonstrates that urgent and concerted action is needed to comply with international humanitarian law and other international obligations, and to implement Resolution 2474.

Where the issue is left unaddressed, not only individuals but entire societies are unable to move on. In such cases missing persons caseloads become an important obstacle to reconciliation and sustainable peace.

Madam Chair,

This year, we mark 75 years of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Together with their Additional Protocols, they contain clear provisions outlining the obligations of parties to armed conflict to prevent and search for persons going missing and to inform families of their fate and whereabouts.

UN Security Council resolution 2474 was an important step building on IHL rules. 2474 calls on parties to armed conflict to take concrete steps to put in place preventive measures, and where needed, ensure early and adequate response measures to prevent avoidable cases of missing persons.

Today I make three calls to Member States, and the Security Council:

1. Prepare early

An effective response to missing persons, whether arising out of armed conflict, disasters or other crises, share the following building blocks :

  • Parties must have a clear understanding of their obligations under international law regarding separated, missing and deceased persons;
  • Medico-legal system must be equipped to manage the deceased with dignity, including with contingencies for mass casualty events;
  • In International armed conflicts, states must set up National Information Bureaux to collect and transmit information regarding enemy persons in their hands as per their obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Similar arrangements should be put in place for non international armed conflicts. This is essential to reduce, and even prevent persons going missing.

2. Act from Day One:

Early action when conflict erupts can help minimize the numbers of people going missing. The Security Council’s consideration of emerging conflict situations should include elements that pertain to preventing or responding to persons going missing. It should call for, and support action on elements addressed in UNSC Res 2474 in line with the circumstances of each context.

International Humanitarian Law must be applied during armed conflict in a way that genuinely strengthens the protection of civilians on the ground. This preserves humanity in war. It can prevent further family separation, including as a result of the conduct of hostilities, prevent people from going missing, and enable the identification of the dead.

The steps to be taken include measures to ensure that persons deprived of their liberty are registered properly, and that information is conveyed to the families.

Through the Geneva Conventions, States have given the ICRC a unique mandate and specific working modalities that enable it to play an effective monitoring role focused on ensuring that persons detained are treated humanely and able to main in contact with their families. This mandate must be respected.

Parties to an armed conflict must record and transmit information regarding persons detained or otherwise under their control to the opposing side.

Persons held hostage must be released and allowed to communicate with their families.

Fatalities of conflict must be searched for, evacuated and treated with dignity. Parties must record all available information in order to identify the dead, and endeavor to return remains to families.

3. And finally, take the long view from day one

Acting from day one in early response does not mean acting only in the short term.

The sad reality of war, reflected in today’s conflicts, is that even with the best preparation and prevention efforts, persons go missing.

In some cases, providing answers can take decades.

Lasting peace is much more difficult to achieve when families and societies live without answers on the fate of their loved ones. Resolution 2474 sets out concrete measures that can contribute to the process of confidence building between parties to armed conflict, and eventually, to sustaining peace. It is critical to implement these measures.

Our experience in contexts around the world supporting long term responses to missing persons, as well as research carried out by the ICRC, confirms this link with sustainable peace.

Building on this experience, and conscious of the important role of mediation in resolving conflicts, we have just published a Guidance Note for mediators on including the clarification of the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in mediation processes.

We hope this Guidance will be a useful tool for mediators seeking to build the political will and identify the appropriate means to act on missing persons. Where parties agree to establish search processes or mechanisms, the ICRC stands ready to provide support and advice for their creation and, where appropriate, to facilitate their work as a neutral intermediary.

Your Excellencies,

Efforts to reunite separated families, to ensure that the dead are treated with dignity, and to support efforts to provide answers on the fate of missing persons, are complex endeavours.

Today’s rapid technological evolution has provided us with new tools and sources of information that can assist the search. The ICRC has made efforts to harness these tools while at the same time paying close attention to the risks associated with their use. The unprecedented access to data and electronic tools can pose protection risks for families, searchers, and those missing and can be used to further victimize individuals. States should be cognizant of the potential risks, and ensure that these are mitigated when search processes are designed.

Madam Chair,

It is clear that the humanitarian tragedy of missing persons urgently requires a more determined international response. The Security Council can play a key role in ensuring that conflict parties act to prevent and address missing persons cases. The know how is there. The ICRC and other actors stand ready to provide advice and support.

We count on the members of the Council and all states present here today to build and sustain the political will that is the bedrock for action on missing persons.

I thank you.

Source : Icrc