Monday

8th Mar 2021

Opinion

Time to end double standards on missing persons

  • Victims of migrant drownings do not get the same treatment as air-crash victims (Photo: Flickr)

For many families around the world, Sunday (30 August), the International Day of the Disappeared, will be a day of anger and sorrow.

Families of the missing will receive messages of support and solidarity, but such messages can only have meaning if they are accompanied by concrete and effective action.

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Governments have mandatory obligations under international and domestic law to do everything in their power to account for missing persons.

When families of the missing seek the support of the authorities, they are not asking for favours. They are demanding their rights under the law.

Yet governments often fail to take the steps they are legally bound to take.

This is a fundamental and dangerous abrogation of the rule of law and it is particularly common when those who have gone missing are poor, when they are from minority communities, when they are irregular migrants, or when they are victims of crimes carried out as policy during conflict.

When it comes to hundreds of thousands of missing persons around the world today, there is a double standard.

Compare the effort to account for those who go missing in a commercial plane crash with the effort to account for those who go missing when a migrant dinghy sinks.

In one case, there will be a coordinated emergency response by governments and by the airline and associated insurance companies.

In the other, the matter will more likely be subject to political calculation and the reluctant and uncoordinated allocation of far too few resources, or at best a humanitarian response.

States are legally responsible for investigating missing persons cases, and they are responsible for securing the rights of all families of the missing to justice, truth, and reparations.

These rights are non-negotiable and certainly do not depend on the income level, nationality, skin colour, gender, ethnicity, or religion of the missing persons and their families. They are the rights of the poor as well as the rich, of minority groups as well as majority groups.

And they are the rights of women as well as men. Most of those who disappear in conflict, human rights abuses, and migration are men, which means that families of the missing are in many cases headed by women.

Their demands for information, for justice, for reparations are often ignored. In many post-conflict societies, female relatives of missing persons face institutional sexism and legal discrimination that can prevent them from inheriting property or accessing education and welfare for their families.

With huge numbers of missing persons around the world - in Syria, Iraq, Colombia, and Mexico, for example, and along the dangerous migration routes in Central America, South Asia, and the Mediterranean, accounting for the missing may seem an insurmountable task.

It can be done

But it is not. It can be done - through a systematic process that brings together all stakeholders, that applies forensic science and 21st century informatics, and that is firmly based in the rule of law.

This has been demonstrated in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) spearheaded an effort that has made it possible to account for more than 70 percent of the 40,000 people who went missing during the conflicts of the 1990s.

As long as large numbers of people are missing, the authorities in countries that are struggling to recover from conflict or disaster will be unable to secure the confidence of substantial segments of the population.

For this reason, not only must the issue of missing persons be understood as a moral and social catastrophe - which it certainly is - but as a threat to global security.

Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace and an investment in stability.

It is not a question of whether this issue should be a priority - it is a priority - but of how it should be tackled in an optimal way.

The good news is that practical and proven strategies have been developed that governments can implement very quickly.

As we look to the International Day of the Disappeared, I urge world leaders to go beyond messages of solidarity and take prompt and effective action to address the global challenge of missing persons in line with the rule of law.

Author bio

Kathryne Bomberger is director-general of the International Commission on Missing Persons, an international organisation in The Hague.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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