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UN rights chief stresses new tactics, cooperation at conference on missing persons

UN rights chief stresses new tactics, cooperation at conference on missing persons

Sergio Vieira de Mello
Before a gathering of international experts on missing persons today, the top United Nations human rights official stressed that governments and civil society groups should develop new and innovative tactics and then work in cooperation to help desperate families learn the fate of relatives who disappeared during war.

"My experience has taught me that the disappeared are often the most contentious issue in peace-making, the question that makes confidence-building all the more difficult, and rightly so," Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in his opening statement to an international conference of governmental and non-governmental experts on the problem of people who go missing during armed conflict and internal violence. The meeting is in Geneva and continues through Friday.

"The norms and the mechanisms at our disposal are not sufficient, we need new approaches to address this pernicious problem," he told the conference, "The Missing: the right to know." The event, organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), brings together experts from about 90 countries in a bid to draw attention to the largely forgotten plight of thousands of families around the world who simply do not know what has happened to a loved one. It seeks to revitalize efforts to find out what has happened to missing persons, and to provide practical guidelines for preventing disappearances in the first place.

"There is indeed a lacuna in international law that needs to be urgently filled," Mr. Vieira de Mello said, informing the experts that the UN Commission on Human Rights had embarked on a useful exercise to elaborate a new, legally binding instrument that would guarantee better protection for current and potential victims of enforced disappearance. That proposed covenant would also provide a comprehensive and integral approach to address the problem.

"My hope, is that the instrument under discussion would be more than a series of negative obligations on States parties to defer from certain actions," he said, "but would also impose positive obligations to create the strong mechanisms needed to prevent deviation." Some of the issues currently being considered are straightforward, action-based measures that address this complex problem.

The High Commissioner said he was also encouraged by discussions on the need for stronger measures against impunity, cooperation between States, mechanisms against arbitrary detention, training of law enforcement personnel and the guarantee of the right to reparation. "Not that legal instruments provide us with instant solutions," he said. "But in the absence of norms, solutions are all the more evasive, haphazard and inhuman."