“In Search of Answers: Effective Resolutions”

“In Search of Answers: Effective Resolutions”

By Jane E. Durgom-Powers
An address to the
International Models of Transitional Justice Conference
International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP)  
Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
December 6-13, 2005

Opening Remarks

Good afternoon. I would like to thank ICMP for inviting me to this conference and affording me the opportunity to address transitional justice issues family associations face while seeking justice for human rights abuses.

We have heard excellent presentations from a number of speakers to this conference who addressed many aspects of the problem of the missing, including what families can and have done to address the issues. I want to compliment all those present. I am very impressed with all of your questions and your sophisticated level of understanding very complicated issues.

My remarks will focus on what family members of missing persons can do to find effective resolutions to their individual cases by optimizing opportunities with intermediary organizations.

In general, I will briefly discuss the problems family associations face; what steps have proved to be successful over time; the importance of intermediary organizations; and where I believe issues stand today.

My remarks are drawn upon my 34 years of experience as an advocate for the missing, an organizer of family associations, and the founder and president of the International Federation of Family Associations of Missing Persons from Armed Conflicts, or IFFAMPAC for short.

The Problem: Enemy of Transitional Justice and Search for the Missing–Time

The good thing about transitional justice is that in time, it will come. The bad thing is that it takes time; and time is the biggest enemy of the missing, especially the missing who have died.

The passage of time robs researchers of any forensic evidence that could identify remains; it makes governments reluctant to cooperate, or to pressure other governments for action, or to justify the allocation of sufficient funds to assist in repatriation of remains or return of live individuals; and it tempts family associations to lose their focus and momentum, and abandon the search. Ultimately, no one wins–and the missing stay missing forever.

How do families prevent the inevitable passing of time from becoming a destructive force that works against them? And how do they keep the momentum going in the search for answers and the truth? Focus is the key.

Family members must never allow their focus to be shifted from the fact that answers exist and can be found. Cooperation from intermediary organizations can help keep focus and save time.

Solution: Harness Individual Power–Form Family Associations

Family associations are formed to unify and amplify the power of individual families, thereby transforming separate small voices into one loud, strong voice.

With one voice, families can draw the news media’s attention to issues more effectively because there are fewer distractions from inconsistent positions and a clear focus of goals, demands, and pressure on governments.

No matter how strong, how rich or how oppressive a government is it cannot hide the truth forever.

Intermediary Organizations

Working with intermediary organizations can make a family association successful by helping individuals form family associations, and sustain them.

Why is that important? NGOs have access to media; have additional funds to help in cost-sharing for publicity, organizational costs; and have specific expertise on a number of interests family associations need to develop, such as providing legal services and re-educational opportunities.


My organization, IFFAMPAC, is one such intermediary NGO. I formed IFFAMPAC for a very clear reason.

I strongly believe that we need to raise the human rights abuses of the missing and the rights of their families to the international community at the highest levels. National and international laws must be changed.

No matter what the country is, the individual challenges and the core issues that families face are fundamentally the same. The problem is the same–the solution varies from country to country.

IFFAMPAC’s first steps are to organize effective family associations in targeted countries, if none exist. Once effective family organizations are formed, we work to train family members to become economic providers and advocates.

We hire lawyers to assist in national changes that will enable the family to not only seek answers but also keep the family unit together by allowing women to inherit family assets to survive. Simultaneously, we work with other NGOs to meet family association needs on a country-to-country basis.

Obstacles Family Associations Will Face

I briefly want to highlight three potential obstacles family associations face and how to respond to them effectively. They are: the desire for individual revenge, an uncooperative government, and maintaining focus over time.

1. Individual revenge

We all get angry when we suffer an injustice. We all feel frustrated when our will is thwarted. But when a family member is missing, that is a profound personal loss that stirs our deepest emotions.

In some, such a loss awakens the desire for revenge. But the family’s survival and the search for the missing member must override the desire for retaliation or revenge. Remember, your perceived enemy has family members too. They are seeking the same answers as you. There is no difference. Intermediary organizations can assist families in dealing with their anger by providing psychological and other services.

2. Don’t Let Governments Defeat You

We have all been taught to love our country and to hate our enemies. But what do you do when you believe your own country is your enemy?

In the search for answers, family associations must have the courage to stand up to their own government–and be relentless. No government wants to provide information willingly.

Don’t allow your government to defeat you. Only when sustained international and national pressure is put on governments, which they find embarrassing, will they acquiesce to your demands. Keep your focus and keep up the pressure.

3. Maintaining Focus over Time

The loss of focus comes with a heavy price. For example, in the United States we started one family association in the early 1970s to focus on missing Americans from the Vietnam War. We were highly successful.

Over time, the association split due to disagreements over policy questions, anger, ego, frustration with the length of the process, and the inability to get personal closure. As a result, four separate family associations now exist. That was the worst thing that could have happened.

Division and alienation within and amongst family associations send mixed messages to governments that become confused in knowing to whom, and how, they should respond. Economic resources are wasted and dwindled away because efforts are duplicated and uncoordinated.

But that is exactly what governments want–to divide and conquer. Again, the missing stay missing forever.

As families leave associations, others need to recommit to the work. Keeping focus is very difficult in this phase of an organization’s life. Intermediary organizations render emotional support to family associations to help them keep focus and long term goals.

Global Affiliation

Time and time again, governments have proven their disinterest and minimal cooperation in finding the missing and providing answers to families. The only way we are going to solve this problem is to put it in the hands of the people, and form global alliances.

IFFAMPAC is a “people-to-people” federation. We unite family associations from all over the world to work together and with other NGOs to pressure governments to disclose information on the fate of the missing and to provide economic assistance. Our goal is to have a unified global movement to find and exchange answers long overdue and reform laws accordingly.

We encourage family associations to affiliate with us to unify and magnify their voice, while retaining their own individual identities. All you have to do is tell us that you want to be a part of the federation. That is all. It costs nothing but your time and opinions to be voiced.

I want to offer a challenge to all of you today. Now is the time to share your experiences with the world. That will not only help you to attain personal closure but also others can learn from your experiences and you become part of a bigger picture. You can make meaningful contributions to help families around the world.

Where Are We Today?

After World War II, the Nuremberg Trials lasted several years bringing to justice those who committed horrific crimes against humanity. Yet, humanity did not listen. International War Crime Tribunals and the International Criminal Court were established to impose sanctions against criminal wrongdoing and bring justice to victims, which is an essential part of closure for families. Yet, all of those actions–though vital–do not provide the answers that the families of the missing seek.

Why have these injustices continued? In my opinion it is because “we the people” have not mobilized globally to share our pain and say to the world, “Never again.”

Just as I felt it was time for a global federation of family associations, I feel it is time for a new international law on behalf of the families of missing persons to be introduced to the United Nations. We need international standards that are implemented and enforced consistently throughout the world.

IFFAMPAC, with the assistance of the American Bar Association, is doing just that. We are in our second year on this project and are making great progress. This new convention supplements existing international laws.

Recently I am seeing signs amongst governments to accept the inevitable. Not long ago the United States government was contacted by a few other governments to meet to discuss how to work with families of the missing in their respective countries. Two meetings have taken place to discuss the issue. I am hopeful that this is the start of a “grass-roots movement of governments.” Now is the time for all of us to come together.


International NGOs and family associations must combine our resources to successfully overcome this long-standing human rights abuse, and require governments to recognize both the right of families to have an accounting for missing members and the government’s obligation to assist families economically, socially, and legally to keep the family unit together.

In the end, answers about and justice for, the missing lie with the people–not the governments. No one disappears alone. There are always witnesses, documents, and evidence waiting to be discovered. The answers are out there. We owe it to the missing to not abandon them. We owe future generations the assurance that every nation will respect basic human rights and the right of a family to exist, whole and in peace.

Again, I would like to thank ICMP for this valuable opportunity to do what I can to help all of you, and learn from all of you, which will make intermediary organizations like IFFAMPAC a better organization. Thank you.