Address to the ICRC Conference “The Missing”

Address to the ICRC Conference “The Missing”
Geneva, Switzerland
February 19-21, 2003
Jane E. Durgom-Powers, Attorney
United States of America

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to address this first ICRC Conference for the project, “The Missing”. In particular, many thanks go to you and your colleagues for taking upon yourselves the important task of organizing and chairing this meeting. The comments made by the distinguished representatives of the organizations gathered here to address the numerous and complex issues of “The Missing” have been inspiring and encouraging.

I address this forum not as a representative of any one organization, government or family member, but as an advocate for people who cannot speak for themselves. They are called simply, “The Missing”. For me personally, this has been a long journey. As I sit and look around this room at the acknowledged representatives of global organizations and numerous governments, I cannot help but reflect back to 1971, when as a student, I first put on a POW/MIA bracelet. The significance of that simple action changed my life.

That year I became an advocate for “The Missing” and family members of missing military personnel from international armed conflicts. At that time the United States Government had little or no interest in this issue, yet alone the willingness to allocate resources to assist family members seeking to determine the fate of their loved ones.

It has been no small task to move the United States Government from that point to where we are today; creating departments within the Department of Defense exclusively funded and dedicated to the mandate of assisting families in the determination, identification, and recovery of their relatives. It took over 30 years, a few lawsuits, constant negotiations, patience, and the pursuit of a belief that you can find the truth. I have worked closely with members of the United States Congress and officials from the Department of Defense on this issue through six presidential administrations, three wars, and the present state of war in America.

This is the 21st Century. Yet, for many families around the world who still seek answers for their missing loved ones, their governments have little or no interest, or resources allocated to assist them. For these families, as it was for us in 1971, it remains the last date they heard from their missing child, sibling, spouse or parent.

No one disappears alone. There are always answers, facts, witnesses and documents that can shed light on the missing. Any information, no matter how circumstantial, adds a piece to the puzzle. The answers are out there. Often they are only given on a selective basis when it suits individuals politically or economically. Sadly, governments do not want to make efforts to search for “The Missing” because it could prove embarrassing as to the incident that caused the tragedy, or how the captive was treated upon and during incarceration. The rules of war are often not followed, which proves embarrassing. As a result, humanitarian concerns are ignored, and “The Missing” are lost forever bringing forth multiple tragedies to their families and civilized society.

In 1948, the United Nations enacted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reaffirming that fundamental human rights belong equally to every individual. The Declaration itself is recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being; and the equal and basic rights of all members of the human family. It is the foundation of freedom, truth, justice and peace in the world. These rights and obligations are universal; they are sacred and should not in any way be impaired by any government or individual.

The question of peace cannot be separated from the question of human dignity and human rights. The human spirit cannot be at peace unless there is truth, justice, love and freedom. To “The Missing”, all of these basic human rights are denied.

In the end, justice for “The Missing” is not about political, economic or governmental structures, but about people. It is the wisdom and courage of simple men and women throughout history, who have kept hope alive for “The Missing” themselves, and their families by unsolicited, unselfish, and countless acts of assistance. These unselfish gestures are from the heart, and are only possible when people truly understand the interaction of their lives to the global consequences of events in the world, and choose to take that action despite personal peril. No government should ever put anyone in the position of fear for themselves and their families for helping others to find answers.

Each one of us is a brick in life. That is all. But together we build a wall. It is my dream that before we leave this conference, together we build a strong foundation for that wall. The structural integrity of that wall is what we do as individuals. Ninety countries are represented at this conference. Each has felt the tragedy of the loss of its citizens through armed conflicts.

War has become a multimedia event. Battles are televised as they happen. News organizations videotape and transmit footage as it is happening; this documentation is readily available. Such information is transmitted over the Internet by lap top computers, or by faxes, or copied to disks quickly and cheaply. Individual witnesses are interviewed, and military personnel keep more copious records. The ICRC is in almost every country during times of conflicts and its representatives have access into camps when others do not.

Therefore, information to solve the cases of “The Missing” is available. It must be shared as it is gathered to solve cases quickly and prevent further disappearances. I am suggesting that this conference be a start to a “people to people” campaign to keep open the channels of communication and freely share this critical information amongst us. Representatives of governmental and nongovernmental organizations have access to this information; the means and ability to communicate it; but the question is, is there the heart or the willingness to so do. Humanity demands it. Dignity and freedom for “The Missing” require it.

We owe nothing less to “The Missing”, and to our children. It will take a tremendous effort on all our parts to do this, but it must be done. The time has come, and is long overdue.

Ladies and gentlemen, to die for freedom is acceptable. To be abandoned for it, is not.

Mr. Chairman, again, I want to thank you for the opportunity to address this groundbreaking conference. The ICRC is to be applauded for bringing together international governmental and non-governmental organizations to recognize and talk about this issue on such a global scale. By so doing, it has set the tone. Now, it is up to us to keep it going. On behalf of “The Missing” and their loved ones who still await answers, I wish you great success in this vital humanitarian endeavor.