A global solution to the problem of missing persons

A global solution to the problem of missing persons
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According to the National Crime Information Center, in 2018 more than 600,000 people were reported missing in the United States; well over two-thirds of cases involved children under the age of 18, and a disproportionate number involved Native American and black women.

The phenomenon of missing persons — as a result of war, crime, natural disasters, irregular migration and other causes — represents a global challenge. On June 13 and 14, at a series of meetings organized by the treaty-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) at its headquarters in the Netherlands, policymakers and experts will come together to develop strategies to tackle key aspects of the problem. 

The focus will be on Mediterranean migration, but many of the themes that will be discussed have direct relevance to migration in the Americas. Around the world, almost 31,000 migrants are reported to have died or to have gone missing since the beginning of 2014, and more than 950 are reported to have died so far this year, of whom 166 were lost in Central America or along the US southern border.

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In November last year, at the Peace Forum organized by French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronUS should support, but also prod, Ukraine Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Trump selects Grenell as special envoy for Serbia, Kosovo peace talks MORE in Paris, the ICMP presented eight principles that it believes can serve as the basis for an ethical and effective international policy on missing migrants.

The Paris Principles assert that resolving the fate of missing and disappeared persons and protecting persons against disappearance are integral to fulfilling the responsibility of states to support peace, reconciliation and social cohesion, and they are key elements in upholding basic human rights. They highlight the fact that investigations into missing persons cases must be capable of establishing the facts, and that cooperation among states and international institutions is indispensable. They also emphasize that persons who go missing or are victims of enforced disappearance are entitled to protection under the law, regardless of citizenship or residence status, and that all measures to address the issue of missing migrants must uphold and advance the rule of law.

The meetings being organized by the ICMP, the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons, will also examine ways of ensuring that the issue of missing persons is incorporated in efforts now underway to end the conflict in Syria. The ICMP has played a key role in helping governments around the world account for missing persons following conflict, and can testify firsthand to the fact that where large numbers of persons are unaccounted for, significant segments of the population have no reason to place their faith in a fledgling peace.

Across large swathes of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico today, students and teachers, activists and church groups are helping local authorities to locate and identify migrants who have perished in inhospitable terrain. Many of the people who are doing this work are motivated by a sense of human solidarity. Solidarity is important, but it is not enough. A coherent and effective approach to the issue of missing persons requires an approach that is firmly based on upholding rule of law. 

The United States is supporting ICMP in Mexico, the Western Balkans and Iraq, as well as in efforts to account for thousands who have gone missing as a result of the conflict in Syria. This support is based on a recognition that the ICMP’s work contributes in a focused and unique way to achieving U.S. diplomatic objectives, including peacemaking efforts. As we continue in our efforts, we are working toward developing strategies through which these objectives can be further advanced. 

Ambassador (retired) Thomas J. Miller has been chairman of the ICMP Board of Commissioners since 2011. He previously served as an American diplomat for nearly three decades, including as ambassador to Greece (20001-2004), ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina (1999-2001), and as Cyprus negotiator at the rank of ambassador (1997-1999). He led the nonprofit International Executive Service Corps from 2010 until 2019 and earlier led Plan International and the United Nations Association of the USA.