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ICRC efforts to clarify the fate of missing persons

Thursday, April 14
Ms Biljana Milosevic, is the Head of Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Georgia. Before staring her mission in Georgia in 2014 she worked in different countries in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

In this article, Ms Milosevic speaks about the problem of persons missing as a result of armed conflicts, and explains activities carried out by the ICRC in Georgia to clarify their fate and whereabouts and the results achieved so far.

Disappearance of people, unfortunately, excessively occurs in conflict-affected countries all over the world. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is addressing the issue of missing persons in various contexts worldwide - in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, in Southern Caucasus; Georgia is one of those, as there are over 2300 persons still reported missing from the 90-ies and August 2008 armed conflicts.

Our approach is of purely humanitarian nature and includes efforts to prevent disappearances, locate missing persons’ whereabouts, and if deceased, identify and hand over the human remains to the families, to allow them to have a proper funeral ceremony and do their mourning. Families of missing persons are also victims of armed conflicts. Aside from the various needs they are facing, the most crucial one is their need to know the whereabouts of their relatives. Uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones is a harsh and emotionally heavy reality for them.

Disappearance is a complex phenomenon. It is a tragedy for the persons who disappear, but it is a never-ending pain for the families left behind, suspecting their loved ones are dead yet unable to mourn without any proof. Many spend years and their life savings, in a futile search. The pain may be compounded by difficult economic situation, as it is often the household breadwinners who go missing, leaving their wives and mothers to support the families. Furthermore, the situation is often a bureaucratic nightmare, since some countries allow years to pass before declaring that a person is officially dead or absent.

The “Right to Know” the fate of a relative is a fundamental concern of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Human Rights Law (HRL) and it must be respected. The legal obligations are laid out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, along with International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearance. International law is clear: it is illegal to make people disappear, and the next-of-kin must be informed about captured, wounded or deceased relatives without delay. The challenge is to ensure that States adopt and implement such rules.

In Georgia, we have been working on the problematic of missing persons since 2004. We succeeded to set up two coordination mechanisms in 2010 for clarifying the Fate of Persons Missing in relation to 90-ies and August 2008 armed conflicts and their aftermaths.

Abkhaz and Georgian participants in one forum, and South Ossetian, Russian and Georgian - in the second, work together to bring answers to the families of the missing persons. The only purpose of these platforms is to clarify, on purely humanitarian grounds, the fate and whereabouts of persons who, several years after the conflicts, are still unaccounted for. Safeguarding this humanitarian process from any political agenda is highly important. Despite the complexity of the issue, the work achieved so far does bring concrete results. Between 2013 and 2015, human remains of 162 persons were recovered from 22 gravesites locations throughout the region; 81 of them were identified and handed over to their families so far.

Along with its role as a chair of the mechanisms in its capacity of a neutral intermediary, the ICRC is directly involved in all stages of the process. Collecting and consolidating information on gravesites locations, collecting ante mortem data (AMD) and biological reference samples (BRS) from the families of missing persons, both are essential for the purpose of forensic human identification. The ICRC as well engages with a team of Argentinian forensic experts, to carry out the assessment of potential gravesites location, recovery, analysis and identification of human remains. In addition, the ICRC runs a special program to accompany the families of missing persons throughout the process, by supporting them on their psychological, legal, administrative and economic needs. Local non-governmental organizations, Georgia Red Cross Society and a number of enthusiastic individuals are cooperating with the ICRC in the accompaniment project. For instance, over 1100 families of missing persons in Georgia already benefited from Micro Economic Initiative projects, as a support from the ICRC, to improve their economic situation and become self-sufficient.

I am glad to observe that various actors in Georgia, - State authorities, experts, media representatives, specialists - show increased interest to the issue of missing persons; I hope this interest will be maintained in the future, as all have a role to play in raising awareness about the problem of disappearance and in addressing it.