A strategy to help Iraq find more missing persons
The political parties in Iraq are in the process of forming a new government following the October elections. The incoming administration will face enormous challenges. There is one area, however, where the newly appointed authorities can make immediate and significant progress: They can implement an effective strategy to account for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis missing as a result of four decades of conflict, human rights violations and other atrocities.
At a meeting organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons in The Hague on the International Day of the Disappeared last August, senior policymakers from Iraq agreed on key elements of a long-term missing persons strategy. The new government will be in a position to implement this strategy as soon as it takes office.
Iraqi government sources estimate that between 250,000 and more than 1 million people are missing. When large numbers of people cannot be accounted for, the rule of law is challenged in a fundamental way. Civil society questions the credibility and good faith of the authorities. Locating the missing and investigating disappearances ensures that the rights of survivors to the truth, justice and reparation are secured, which in turn has a profound impact on efforts to establish peace and stability.
Over the years, Iraqi institutions and policymakers have taken positive steps by establishing institutions and developing legislation, particularly the Mass Graves Protection Law in 2006, which was amended in 2015 as the Mass Graves Affairs Law to include persons missing as a result of Daesh-related atrocities. In 2010, Iraq ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Other laws have been enacted in federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan to establish technical procedures and support survivors. Iraqi institutions have excavated more than 200 mass graves and have collected more than 12,000 DNA reference samples and at least 15,000 missing persons reports.
However, laws, policies and practices diverge and there is a need for a long-term, Iraqi-led strategy that complies with international law and best practice. This should include, for example, central coordination of the missing persons process, an impartial central record and assurances of data protection for persons who provide data to find their relatives.
The incoming administration can implement an effective strategy to account for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis missing as a result of four decades of conflict, human rights violations and other atrocities
Hassan Al-Kaabi & Alistair Burt
In July 2018, the ICMP produced a document outlining strategic measures for an effective missing persons process in Iraq. These options were developed during workshops with representatives of Iraqi institutions and civil society in 2019 and 2020. Iraqi government representatives discussed a final draft five-year strategy based on the options at last year’s conference hosted by the ICMP in The Hague.
At the 2021 conference, consensus was reached on 12 conclusions that form the basis for a comprehensive strategy, including creating a central mechanism and adopting a national plan, improving data management and data protection, ensuring state funding for the process, strengthening the role and capacity of civil society, upholding the rights of survivors, particularly women, and bringing perpetrators to justice.
The incoming government has an opportunity to move forward quickly. A cadre of trained Iraqi forensic scientists and personnel in relevant institutions stands ready to implement a strategy that has been developed over a period of years. Hundreds of thousands of families of the missing — a sizable proportion of the population encompassing all of the religious and cultural communities — will contribute to and benefit from the implementation of such a strategy. What it requires is political support.
At the conference in The Hague, participants agreed on the need for a high-level meeting of relevant institutions in Iraq following the formation of a new government in order to adopt and move forward with a comprehensive national missing persons strategy. We believe that, with political support, real and rapid progress can be made in addressing one of the major challenges facing Iraq today.
• Hassan Al-Kaabi is an Iraqi MP, former First Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi parliament and former head of the National Center for Studies and Legal Correction.
• Alistair Burt is an International Commission on Missing Persons commissioner and former British MP who twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign Office.