Protection of Civilians: Missing Persons in Armed Conflict
Expected Council Action
In June, Kuwait plans to hold a briefing on “missing persons in conflict” under the protection of civilians agenda item. This is a new subtopic for the Council. The briefing will be chaired by Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah. Also expected to brief is OCHA Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock and Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC. Kuwait plans to circulate a concept note before the briefing. A resolution is a possible outcome.
Key Recent Developments
It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but the available statistics show that a vast number have gone missing because of conflict, migration and disaster. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) reports that in Sri Lanka 20,000 people remain missing ten years after the end of the civil war. In Cyprus, 493 Turkish Cypriots and 1,508 Greek Cypriots were officially reported as missing by both communities to the ICMP as a result of intercommunal fighting in the 1960s, the Turkish invasion in 1974 and the eventual division of the island. In Colombia, the ICRC put the number of missing from decades of civil war at around 80,000. There are many other conflicts with numbers in the tens of thousands.
The Council mostly discusses missing persons in the context of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) agenda item (as at 29 April, the number of missing persons in the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is 369). On 19 February, the Council adopted a presidential statement that welcomed the cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and the return of missing Kuwaiti property, including national archives. However, Kuwait is clear that its intention in holding this signature event is to address the problem of missing persons in armed conflict in general, not as it relates to its own national experience.
This will be a new thematic approach for the Council. While the problem is frequently mentioned in context-specific discussions and documents, the only general outcome has been a 2000 presidential statement on “Humanitarian aspects of issues before the Security Council” where the issue of missing persons is mentioned briefly. In January 2016 the UK organised an Arria-formula meeting to, according to its concept note, “highlight the cross-cutting, global problem of missing persons in the context of international peace and security and to discuss effective strategies to ensure greater international cooperation in addressing this issue”. It focused on many factors that result in missing persons: conflict, disasters, organised crime, migration and other causes.
The latest Secretary-General’s protection of civilians report, issued on 7 May, said that “more than 10,000 cases of missing persons have been opened by the International Committee of the Red Cross in relation to the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, while it has received 13,000 requests from families in Nigeria for support in finding missing relatives”. The Secretary-General called on all parties to conflicts to “ensure respect for international humanitarian law as it relates to missing persons: to prevent enforced disappearance; to take all feasible measures to account for those reported missing; and to uphold the right of their families to receive information on their fate and whereabouts”.
The ICRC is the principal organisation working on tracing missing persons worldwide. On its website, it stresses that both combatants and civilians can go missing during conflict and that there is a responsibility for governments, the military authorities and armed groups to end the uncertainty surrounding the missing person’s whereabouts. The ICRC stresses that the absence of a loved one causes not only psychological grief but also has bureaucratic consequences: without some sort of proof establishing that a person is missing in conflict, those left behind are unable to receive benefits to which they may be entitled.
Some Council members have expressed concern about the continued fragmenting of the protection of civilians topic. While this did not lead to resistance for this meeting’s inclusion on the programme of work, some members worry about a product, and about the proliferation of responsibilities for peacekeepers leading to mandates that will be harder to implement, and potentially weakening the protection of civilians agenda as a whole.
For Kuwait, the issue of missing persons in armed conflict is a reality its people continue to face since the first Gulf war almost 30 years ago. The global focus of the briefing has helped in gaining members’ agreement to hold it. Kuwait, as well as other Council members, believe holding this meeting could help fill in the gaps in an area of the protection of civilians agenda that they believe has been overlooked.
While the UK is the penholder on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, Kuwait has been leading the work on a resolution that would be aimed at helping guide future efforts to include language on missing persons in country-specific resolutions. Kuwait seeks to have the resolution adopted by consensus, and has been meeting bilaterally with other Council members. The first reading of the draft resolution was held 24 May and negotiations are ongoing.
UN DOCUMENTS ON MISSING PERSONS PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|19 February 2019S/PRST/2019/1||The Council welcomed the cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and the return of missing Kuwaiti property, including national archives.|
|13 March 2000S/PRST/2000/7||The Council the importance of providing assistance to all those in need, with particular emphasis on women and children and other vulnerable groups affected by armed conflict, in accordance with the principle of impartiality.|
|7 May 2019S/2019/373||The Secretary-General’s annual report on protection of civilians, which included a section on “missing persons”.|