Efficient treatment of the issue of missing persons requires the existence of competent mechanisms (humanitarian, political, judicial, non-judicial) at various levels (global, regional, national) and that are complementary, to cover the range of expected needs of the families of missing persons, their families and their communities.
The information on this page relates to the processes, commissions, institutions or specific entities (“Missing Persons Mechanisms”) set up to search for persons missing in relation to an armed conflict or other situation of violence.
Mechanisms can be established in situations of ongoing armed conflict, and other situations of violence, in post-conflict contexts or even years after a conflict has ended. These can take the form of national mechanisms, coordination mechanisms or other relevant missing persons mechanisms that may be present in a transitional context such as local, international and hybrid tribunals, parliamentary commissions, human rights commissions, and truth and reconciliation commissions.
Mechanisms to address missing migrants can also be established.
National mechanisms are all national institutions, commissions and other bodies and processes established by relevant authorities that aim to provide individualized answers on the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, ensure the recovery of remains through links to national forensic institutions where required, and to involve and provide support to families of missing persons.
Beyond this humanitarian objective, mechanisms may pursue others, including objectives linked to accountability or broader transitional justice aims, such as truth seeking or reparations.
Such mechanisms have been established in many countries, including Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, El Salvador, Georgia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Serbia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Uruguay, among others.
Coordination mechanisms are multilateral bodies, structures, entities or other measures put in place by opposing parties to an armed conflict – often with the support of a neutral intermediary – to exchange information and keep each other informed of progress in the effort to resolve the fate and whereabouts of missing persons from each side and to inform their families.
Such coordination mechanisms have been established to facilitate the coordination of search efforts between former parties to various armed conflicts, including: in Bosnia and Herzegovina, between Croatia and Serbia; in Cyprus; in Kosovo (the 1998–1999 conflict); the 1991 Gulf War; the armed conflict between Iran and Iraq; Abkhazia (the 1992–1993 conflict); and Georgia (the 2008 armed conflict).
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have emerged as a major tool of truth-seeking in helping a society come to terms with the legacy of its past, facilitate reconciliation, restore the rule of law and combat impunity. Although they may have different mandates and working procedures, they can generally be identified as bodies with the following characteristics:
A National Information Bureau (NIB) is a body provided for in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, placed under the responsibility of the state. During an international armed conflict (IAC), its role is to obtain and transmit information, via the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency, on prisoners of war and other persons protected under the Conventions who are in the hands of the party to the conflict to which the NIB belongs.
Because of the tasks NIBs are required to perform and the information they must collect and transmit to the relatives of protected persons, they play a pivotal role in accounting for protected persons in the hands of the enemy, preventing them from going missing and informing families of their fate and whereabouts. States have an obligation to establish a NIB from the outbreak of hostilities in case of an international armed conflict and in all cases of occupation, as set down in the third and fourth 1949 Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions do not prescribe in detail how a NIB should be organized. What matters is that it can receive and transmit information, enabling identification of persons and rapid notification of families - and that it can do so effectively. Necessary measures such as establishing clear procedures for the creation and functioning of the NIB should be taken in peacetime so that it can begin operating as soon as possible after a conflict starts.
Although there is no obligation to establish NIBs in non-international armed conflicts, it is possible to do so if deemed useful to give effect to IHL rules applicable in a given context. More generally, NIB functions could also be considered as part of State preparedness, including beyond situations of armed conflict, and as a way to fulfil obligations related to the separated, missing and dead, regardless of the classification of the situation.