Twenty-five years ago this month, 8,000 men and boys were murdered in and around the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica and their bodies were disposed of in mass graves. This was not an isolated case. The last quarter of a century has witnessed more instances of bloodletting, including the horrors wrought by protracted conflicts in parts of Africa.
In Central America today, in the Mediterranean, and across South Asia, tens of thousands of people are missing as a result of irregular migration. At the same time, countries such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Rwanda, and – even after the passage of nearly half a century – Vietnam are striving to address a huge and painful legacy of missing persons from past conflicts. Meanwhile, citizens of Syria and Libya, to cite just two examples, are contending with the use of enforced disappearance as a weapon of war.
But just as the scale of the problem is becoming better known, so are the different strategies that can be applied to address it.
The unprecedented effort by the world’s police forces to account for persons missing from the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami demonstrated an ability to pull together resources at an international level and account for a significant number of the missing. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) played a crucial role in that response: in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, ICMP tested more than 1,200 bone samples and issued DNA identification reports for more than 900 individuals.
As the tsunami showed – brutally and graphically – the problem of missing persons does not respect borders. Whether persons are missing as a result of natural disasters, conflict, human rights violations, organized violence, or irregular migration, the issue of the missing is increasingly being understood as a global challenge that demands a structured and sustainable international response. Uncoordinated, ad hoc approaches are not enough.
In November 2018, ICMP presented eight principles at the Paris Peace Forum, which lay out the obligations of governments and which can serve as an invaluable peacebuilding tool: ICMP’s Paris principles assert that:
• States have a responsibility to resolve the fate of missing persons;
• Fundamental human rights are invoked when a person goes missing;
• Investigations must be capable of establishing the facts;
• Effective responses require cooperation between states and with international institutions;
• Meaningful investigations ensure that individuals are not denied protections under the law;
• Establishing cause and manner of death is fundamental in upholding the right to the truth;
• All missing persons investigations are potential criminal investigations and must be conducted as such; and
• Actions to address the issue of missing and disappeared persons must uphold and advance the rule of law.
Victims of disappearance – and their families – suffer multiple human rights violations. Perpetrators seek to erase all evidence of the victim’s existence on the premise that if there is no body there can be no criminal prosecution; relatives are denied all knowledge of what may have happened – their loved ones may be dead; they may be in captivity.
This is a problem that is all too evident in Africa, where large numbers of people have gone missing – and continue to go missing – as a result of conflict and irregular migration.
In the years after the Srebrenica Genocide, ICMP spearheaded an effort that has made it possible to account for more than 90 percent of those who died and this in turn made it possible to bring some of the perpetrators to justice. This means that as the problem of enforced disappearance and missing persons is better understood, so too are the various ways in which this issue can be effectively addressed.
The Srebrenica Genocide led to the evolution of an international system of justice designed to prevent recurrences. Among other things, this has resulted in the prosecution of political and military leaders in Africa accused of committing war crimes.
So, as we mark this anniversary, it is appropriate to consider practical steps that will bolster the international capacity to address scenarios where large numbers of people go missing. One of these steps is for countries to accede to the ICMP treaty, which does not entail financial obligations but allows states to participate more fully in a global dialogue on the issue of the missing. This issue presents a huge challenge to Africa, and I believe our continent should be at the forefront of efforts to address it.
*Sanji Monageng has been an ICMP Commissioner since May 2017.