October 16, 2019

Accounting for the Missing is an Investment in Peace: The Work of ICMP

By María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, Former Foreign Minister of the Republic of El Salvador, Commissioner of the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP).

Every year, millions of people around the world go missing as a result of conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration, and other causes. ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with headquarters in The Hague dedicated to tackling this issue. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons. 

ICMP was created at the initiative of US President Bill Clinton in 1996 at the G-7 Summit in Lyon, France. The Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, was in its first year of implementation, and ICMP’s initial mandate was to help account for the approximately 40,000 persons who were missing as a result of the fighting. 

In Croatia and Serbia, national agencies responsible for searching for the missing had been established early on in the conflict. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had suffered the greatest physical damage and where the instances of missing persons were the most numerous, the fledgling post-war institutions generally lacked the capacity or the will, to address the issue of missing persons in an efficient and inclusive way.

In every case, ICMP sought the cooperation of all relevant institutions and stakeholders in establishing a rule-of-law-based missing persons process. This made it possible to develop a coherent, inclusive and effective approach. By encouraging the parties to cooperate, by asserting the right of families of the missing to an effective investigation, and by supporting processes and agencies that can address this issue effectively, ICMP played a significant role in the broader effort to rebuild a war-torn society.

ICMP’s contribution in the former Yugoslavia has led to the unprecedented achievement of accounting for more than 70 percent of those reported missing.

Since its inception in November 2001, ICMP’s missing persons DNA identification system has been the benchmark for technical innovation and performance in the field. The system complements forensic archaeological and anthropological techniques with a state-of-the-art process of DNA matching which has resulted in an exponential rise in the number and speed of identifications. To date, more than 20,000 missing persons from around the world have been identified using DNA with ICMP’s assistance.

ICMP has also developed the only specialized missing persons database, Identification Data Management System (iDMS), to manage all data pertaining to the missing persons process. It maintains a unique, specialized Online Inquiry Center (OIC) that allows family members and other stakeholders to upload information and follow the progress of cases in real time.

While ICMP is focused on developing and applying political and rule-of-law-based strategies to address the issue of the missing in different societies and situations around the world, as you can see, it brings a unique element of technical assistance to its activities.

As a consequence of ICMP’s success in the former Yugoslavia, and with the financial support of a growing number of donor governments, in 2003 ICMP’s mandate and sphere of activity were extended by supporting governments, to address the global issue of missing persons, including cases arising from natural disasters.

Since then, ICMP capacity building and technical assistance has had a major – often a pivotal – impact on the location, recovery and identification of missing persons in different parts of the world.

Among many other cases, ICMP has been actively involved in programs including:

  • The Asian Tsunami in December 2004;
  • Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005;
  • Efforts after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in 2003;
  • Efforts in Colombia after the Peace Agreement of 2016 to help coordinate the location and identification of persons who went missing since the early 1960s;
  • Efforts after the restoration of democracy in Chile to begin locating and identifying those who went missing in the previous two decades; and
  • Efforts to begin locating and identifying missing persons in Libya following the violent collapse of the 42-year long Gaddafi regime in 2011.

On December 15, 2014, the Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg signed a Treaty granting ICMP a new legal status. The Agreement constituted ICMP as a treaty-based international organization with its own system of governance and international capacities. It provided for a new organizational structure, including a Board of Commissioners, a Conference of States Parties, and an Executive to be headed by a Director-General. The Framework Agreement stipulated that ICMP would establish its headquarters in The Hague, a move that was completed in 2017. My country El Salvador also became a signatory in November 2015.

Since the establishment of ICMP in 1996 the issue of missing persons has rightly come to be understood as a global challenge – and one that demands a structured and sustainable international response. ICMP has been at the forefront of efforts to develop such a response.

The international community’s approach to locating and identifying missing persons, particularly in the wake of conflict and disasters, has developed as a natural progression from broader efforts, to build peaceful states through transitional justice strategies and rule-of-law initiatives that attempt to redress the legacy of violent conflict and massive human rights abuses. Such strategies have also had resonance in cases of persons missing as a result of disasters and other causes, where law-based, forensic approaches are becoming the norm.

Furthermore, developments in the field of genetics, the use of modern forensic methods and the creation of dedicated databases have made it possible to locate and identify missing persons with a level of efficiency and certainty that was not possible before.

These developments, in which ICMP has played a leading role, have had a major impact on countries emerging from conflict or from large-scale disasters. It is increasingly the norm for domestic stakeholders to assume ownership of the missing persons process. In addition, more cases are being properly investigated and more perpetrators are being held to account, civil society is actively engaged, and modern forensic methods, including DNA analysis, are being used.

This in turn has had a significant bearing on criminal justice, on strengthening the rule of law and on efforts to ensure that relatives of the missing are able to assert their right to know the fate of loved ones and have the means to seek justice and reparations.

ICMP is actively engaged in developing institutions and civil society capacity, promoting legislation, fostering social and political advocacy, and developing and providing technical expertise to locate and identify the missing. The Commission also works with governments to develop their institutional capacity to address the issue of missing persons efficiently and impartially, helping them to develop legislation to safeguard the rights of families of the missing, and it works with civil society organizations to empower them to advocate for their rights.

ICMP assists the process of justice by ensuring that governments adhere to a rule-of-law-based approach to investigating disappearances and it provides evidence in criminal trials.

ICMP directly assists governments with fieldwork. It has been involved in the excavation of more than 3,000 mass and clandestine gravesites, and has spearheaded the application of advanced forensic techniques to locate and recover missing persons.

ICMP also provides training and education programs to a wide range of individuals, including government authorities, prosecutors and judges, NGOs, families of the missing and forensic practitioners.

We have a specialized staff with extensive international and professional experience and a record of commitment in the field of human rights and the search for the missing.

ICMP’s international strategies to address the issue of missing persons are supported by partnerships with organizations such as INTERPOL, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), among others. 

As an update on our current ICMP involvement, we are helping countries increase their capacities to investigate the disappearances of migrants who are coming from a variety of countries as they travel through the central and eastern Mediterranean to Europe. This includes those who have died in the Mediterranean, those who have been trafficked, missing children (EUROPOL estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 as a result of the migration to Europe), and other cases. 

Significant challenges have been noted when it comes to addressing the issue of refugees, migrants and displaced persons who have missing relatives from the country of origin, transit countries, or in countries of destination. Part of the process of finding a missing relative includes being able to report the missing person without fear of reprisal and in accordance with human rights, which rarely accommodate unequal treatment between citizens and non-citizens. 

Europe has not had to deal with large numbers of missing persons on its own soil since WWII and therefore there are, understandably, few administrative mechanisms in place to address the issue.  At the same time, negative perceptions have fueled a move to keep migrants from entering Europe. This has led to a fall in the number of arrivals, back to pre-2014 levels, but the number of dead and missing migrants has risen. 

Additionally we have programs in Iraq, the Western Balkans, Mexico and Colombia. Close to my heart is the possibility of addressing these issues in the Mesoamerican context of missing migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America, as they venture north in caravans towards the United States, and in the gang violence related disappearances in these countries. 

As an intergovernmental organization with programs in these areas, we must address this challenge. To do so, we need the commitment of governments so that we can work with them. This includes meeting freely with migrant communities to build their capacities to address this issue, to collect data from families of the missing using our iDMS and our on-line capacities to report a missing person, and to assist governments in building institutional/administrative capabilities to address this challenge.  

ICMP is a donor-funded organization. The financial contributions are provided principally by governments and multilateral organizations, though ICMP has also been funded and supported by foundations, corporations and individuals. ICMP is continuously working to expand its donor base.

States can benefit enormously by participating in the work of ICMP as signatories to the Agreement on the Status and Functions of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP Agreement). This does not entail any financial obligation. Another option is to take part in the Conference of ICMP States Parties in an observer capacity.

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