Remarks at the International Commission for Missing Persons Conference

As delivered by Ambassador Daniel Baer,
The Hague, The Netherlands
November 1, 2013

Good morning,

It is really a pleasure to be back in the Hague—the Netherlands is such a leader on so many important international efforts, particularly those connected to human rights and justice, and I have visited the Hague to work on everything from Internet freedom to security and human rights in the extractive sector to human rights for LGBT people in the last few years, and always been grateful for the leadership and commitment of the Dutch government.  And of course Minister Timmermans embodies that not only because of his title but because of the gusto he brings to important efforts—his enthusiasm is contagious and his strategic leadership is indispensible.  I’m honored to be here with him and to be in such good company with Member of Parliament, Alistair Burt, and Ambassador Knut Vollebaek whom I have long admired as an example of humility, wisdom, and grace on the international stage. Tom, Catherine, thank you to you and your team for bringing us all together.

Until a couple months ago, I was a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in Washington.  Colleagues at my bureau —we call it DRL—back at the State Department are particularly inspired by ICMP’s success.  When you’re at an event like this week’s conference, it can sometimes be easy to forget that most organizations don’t make it this far, that organizational success doesn’t come as a matter of course—it’s not inevitable.  And ICMP’s improbable beginnings—informally chartered in a press release during the Clinton administration—makes it all the more surprising.  The success has come because of the incredibly dedicated and smart work of those working for and with ICMP over the last two decades.  It has come because ICMP has been effective and delivered results, and has thereby fostered a continued demand for its work.  It has succeeded because of the support it has received from others who understand how important its mission is.  On the part of the United States, DRL has directed and facilitated over $30 million to support ICMP’s work in the last 17 years, with large grants supporting work first in the Balkans, then in Iraq, and most recently in Libya.

These are just some of the factors that came together to spell success—and there were many more—but the success of the organization and its work couldn’t have been predicted in the mid 90s—and so I feel like we should take a moment to be grateful for and inspired by the combination of people, purpose, and impact that has delivered such an impressive track record.  And to take a lesson from the example it sets as we seek to bring common efforts to advance related causes.

In my work now as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, and particularly with regard to post conflict societies and those engaged in protracted conflicts, I am reminded frequently that even if ICMP’s success wasn’t guaranteed at the outset, there can be no question about the enduring centrality of ICMP’s mission to the broader goal of helping societies heal after the trauma of conflict or massive human rights violations.  We’re fortunate to have ICMP because it’s clear that we need it.  And I’m glad that part of what’s on the agenda for this conference is the topic of how to equip ICMP for continued success in the coming decades.

As this week’s discussions have made clear, large numbers of missing persons perpetuate the legacy of a painful past, exacerbate the fragility of peace and reconciliation processes, and are an obstacle to the development, through accountable and just institutions, of a democratic society.

Given the technical forensic work and the documentation and review of records and testimony, some people may be tempted to see the work of ICMP as focused on the past.  But what ICMP is really doing is helping individuals and societies prepare to greet and unlock the potential of better, more peaceful futures.

We’re less good at making and keeping peace than we wish—even where tremendous progress has been made in post-conflict societies’ efforts to build a better future—as it has in the Balkans—the progress always comes slower than we would like.  But we have learned some valuable lessons along the way—and one of them is the value and necessity of accounting for the past.  This is a step that it can be tempting to skip—it can seem easier to move on quickly and try to set aside the raw pain of conflict, the often nauseating details of abuses, and focus immediately and solely on the future.  But this is a false short cut; it doesn’t work.

Gaps in information keep wounds of heart and conscience open and prevent healing and reconciliation, they feed old hatreds anew and prevent new bonds from forming.  Families of the missing often not only have to cope with the loss of loved ones, but also with displacement and loss of property, and consequent marginalization.   Extremist leaders – understanding the potentially explosive nature of the missing persons issue in fragile post-conflict societies – use the strong symbolism associated with the dead and missing to advance their political agenda.

Against this backdrop, ICMP gives individuals and societies facts that fill in the gaps. These facts empower individuals because they give them the opportunity to reckon with the known—no matter how horrible it is—rather than be perpetually tormented by the unknown. These facts provide a critical basis for accountability, in both the legal and non-legal senses of the word—and in so doing reinforce a society’s pursuit of justice and human rights protections.  The recent contributions to the prosecutions of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are concrete and high profile examples of ICMPs impact in this regard.

Diplomats spend a lot of time hammering out agreements, trading messages about our governments’ positions and attempting to persuade counterparts.  Addressing international crises including conflict, atrocities and gross human rights violations is part of what we do.  And the pieces of paper that condemn atrocities or outline peace agreements play an important role in restoring and preserving peace.  But work has to go on not just at the international level, and not just in foreign ministries but also at the personal level and in villages and schools and places of worship and living rooms.  That work at the person level is in many ways the most difficult and the most fundamental.  And it’s that work to which ICMP contributes so well.

In the world today there are millions of persons missing from war, conflict, and repression resulting in egregious violations of human rights.  And the United States continues to see it as vital to support the efforts of societies and governments to exhume mass graves, identify loved ones, and provide that information to those who mourn them.

I want to close by thanking the people who make up the ICMP and its partners.  The United States is grateful to the many deeply committed professionals and tenacious advocates for the missing, the vulnerable, and their families to pursue justice.  These efforts help restore the relationship between citizens and the state in countries where legacies of gross human rights abuses persist long after violence has ended — laying the foundations for citizen empowerment and stable democratic institutions.  In societies transitioning from war to democracy, we know that it is critical to support these efforts, both because they restore peace and because they enshrine our most fundamental freedoms.

So thank you for what you do, on behalf of all of us, to help us see the past and greet the future with a commitment to justice.