Interacting with the authorities: Supporting families in the search for their loved ones

Families / The Search Process
Central Tracing Agency (CTA) / Data Protection / Enforced Disappearance / Family Needs / Human Rights / Identification / Right to Know/Truth

The ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency and the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation have piloted a peer negotiation workshop for the families of missing persons.

17 May 2023

The families of missing  persons often play an active and crucial role in searching for their loved ones. In recognition of this, the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency (CTA) and the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) launched a new pilot workshop for families of missing  persons.

For the families who took part, the pilot workshop provided an opportunity to share their experiences, to learn how to better prepare for interactions with the authorities and how to structure their existing negotiation practices. The workshop was held online in multiple languages between 2 and 4 May 2023, and participants described the experience as “eye-opening” and “inspiring”.

The pilot workshop brought together 40 families from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Venezuela.

Families at the heart of the process

The workshop was based on existing humanitarian negotiation tools developed by the CCHN and adapted to the lived experiences of the families of missing  persons in different contexts around the world. The workshop’s premise is that families are and always must be at the centre of the search process for their missing loved ones, regardless of how the person disappeared.

When searching for their loved ones, families often have to interact with a range of authorities – for example, with mayors, police officers, prosecutors, army officials, governors and ministers – but also with soldiers, local militia and religious leaders, and sometimes with other missing  persons’ families, some of whom may be on the opposite side of the conflict.

These interactions may be brief or last years; they may be friendly but are often emotionally charged; they are potentially laden with bias linked to the cause of the disappearance, and mistrust and misunderstandings about the reason for the interaction. For the families involved, the experience can be frustrating and emotionally difficult.

Developing negotiation skills

Recognizing these experiences and challenges, this new online workshop for families covers subjects such as how to:

  • leverage personal networks to reach and be heard by the authorities
  • influence an authority’s stance or position
  • prepare for a first meeting, and the arguments to help build trust
  • create an enabling environment for future interactions
  • choose an effective communication style when meeting the authorities.

The workshop was developed as part of the CTA’s objective to advise and support families, to strengthen their capacity to be heard and to provide safe spaces where they can share their experiences. Some of the families acted as co-facilitators during the workshop, and the CCHN and the CTA are considering building on this mentoring role and making similar workshops a regular part of their joint capacity-building programme.