Serbia: The families of missing persons strive to make their voices heard.  © ICRC

Serbia: The families of missing persons strive to make their voices heard. © ICRC

When people disappear in connection with armed conflict or other violence, their relatives endure terrible suffering as they struggle to find out what happened.

Here are five examples of International Humanitarian Law that aid the missing and their families:

1. Renewing contact with family members

Article 26 of Geneva Convention IV states that, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate enquiries made by members of families dispersed owing to the war, with the object of renewing contact with one another and of meeting, if possible. It shall encourage, in particular, the work of organisations engaged on this task provided they are acceptable to it and conform to its security regulations.

To assist families separated due to armed conflict, political upheaval, natural disaster, migration and other humanitarian crises the Red Cross Restoring Family Links service helps people to re-establish contact with immediate family members after separation

2. Record personal details of those reported missing

Rule 123. Of customary international humanitarian law states that, all parties to a conflict, be it international or non-international, must record personal details of persons deprived of their liberty. In international armed conflicts, the details recorded pursuant to this rule must be forwarded to the other party and to the Central Tracing Agency at the ICRC.

This rule overlaps with both the prohibition of enforced disappearances and the obligation to account for persons reported missing.

3. Provide for the missing in conflict

Geneva Convention Additional Protocol I, Articles 32 – 34 provide for the missing in conflict

Parties to a conflict shall be prompted by the right of families to know the fate of their relatives (Art. 32). Article 33 also places obligations on States to record the personal details of people detained, imprisoned or otherwise deprived of their liberty and make that information available to the central tracing service of the ICRC. Furthermore at the end of hostilities, parties to an international armed conflict must take measures to search for persons reported missing by an adverse party.

Knowing what has happened to your loved one can be very important for families and Art. 34 places an obligation on states to mark the graves of those killed because of a conflict and to facilitate access for families to the graves or where possible facilitate the repatriation of remains.

4. Enforced disappearances are prohibited

International humanitarian law treaties do not refer to the term “enforced disappearance” as such. However, enforced disappearance violates, or threatens to violate, a range of customary rules of international humanitarian law, most notably the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of liberty (see Rule 99), the prohibition of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment (see Rule 90) and the prohibition of murder (see Rule 89).

5. Measures must be taken to account for persons reported missing in conflict

Rule 117. States that, each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with any information it has on their fate.
The 30th of August marks the International Day of the Disappeared. It’s the day when we draw attention to the fate of missing people and the lives of their families who cope with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead.
To learn more about the Irish Red Cross’ role in Restoring Family Links, see www.redcross.ie

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