People's Stories Justice

Families deserve answers when loved ones go missing in conflict
by ICRC, OCHA, UN News
June 2019
The UN Security Council has adopted the first-ever resolution on Persons Reported Missing during Armed Conflict, with calls for much greater political will from all parties to address the problem.
Representatives expressed concern that the number of such cases worldwide is showing no signs of abating and demanded greater political will to address the problem.
Unanimously adopting resolution 2474 (2019), the Council called upon parties to armed conflict to take all appropriate measures, to actively search for persons reported missing, to enable the return of their remains and to account for persons reported missing “without adverse distinction”.
Through the text, the Council also called upon parties to armed conflict to take appropriate measures to prevent persons from going missing, to pay the utmost attention to cases of children reported missing, and to register and notify the personal details of persons deprived of their liberty, including prisoners of war.
It further called upon States, in cases of persons missing resulting from armed conflict, to take measures, as appropriate, to ensure thorough, prompt, impartial and effective investigations and the prosecution of offences linked to missing persons due to armed conflict.
The resolution goes on to urge parties to armed conflict to collect, protect, and manage all relevant data and documents on missing persons; to search for, recover and identify the dead; to return remains, wherever possible, to their relatives; and to refrain from the deliberate relocation of remains from mass graves.
It goes on to urge the establishment of mechanisms, upon the outbreak of conflict, to exchange information on detainees and civilians; reiterates the Council’s support for efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in seeking access to information on persons reported missing; and calls for peace agreements to include provisions to facilitate the search for missing persons.
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that, last year alone, more than 45,000 people were registered as missing by ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency, and this figure is the tip of the iceberg.
“Every time someone goes missing, families wait for answers. Ricocheting between hope and despair, they mark anniversaries, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years,” he said. The trauma of ambiguous loss is one of the deepest wounds of war, he added.
ICRC is a daily witness to this suffering, with its teams frequently approached for help by mothers searching for their sons and by husbands searching for their wives.
Much more can be done, he said, speaking via video teleconference from Geneva. The legal framework is in place, with international law setting out obligations for preventing persons from going missing in armed conflict and clarifying the fate and whereabouts of those who do.
The international community has practical experience, including preventing family separation, registering all persons deprived of their liberty or issuing identity disks to armed forces. “What is needed is stronger political will and cooperation,” he emphasized.
“There is no comprehensive figure for those missing in conflict, but we know enough that the situation is dire,” said Reena Ghelani, Director for Operations and Advocacy of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
She recalled that, in Syria, more than 10,000 cases of missing persons have been opened by ICRC, which has also received 13,000 requests for support for finding missing relatives from families in Nigeria. In Myanmar, South Sudan and Yemen, meanwhile, the United Nations has reported cases of enforced disappearances, as well as missing persons.
Still pending clarification are cases of missing persons in the Balkans, Lebanon, Nepal and Sri Lanka that go back years or even decades, she said, adding that international humanitarian law, as it relates to missing persons, prohibits enforced disappearance and requires parties to conflict to take all feasible measures to account for those reported missing, while also enshrining the right of families to get information about the fate of missing kin.
She recommended that States and parties to conflict avail themselves of the support of ICRC and others to establish the necessary legal and policy frameworks.
Strengthening the role and capacity of relevant existing national, regional and international mechanisms will be essential, she said, encouraging Member States to cooperate through networking and the exchange of experiences. She said the scale of the problem can and must be addressed, principally by respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.
Persons can go missing in conflict due to a complex variety of reasons. They could be captured by warring parties and held in secret locations; they can be victims of extrajudicial executions and buried in unmarked location; they can be families separated during the chaos of attempting to flee violence, and more.
“Whatever the circumstances, the families of the missing are left in a state of absolute despair, not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones,” Ms. Ghelani stressed.
She explained that when the missing person is the breadwinner of the family, the economic impact can be devastating, and that relatives left behind often face legal, administrative or cultural challenges that make it hard to remarry, claim their inheritance, or receive benefits.
Missing Persons in Armed Conflict (ICRC)
Hundreds of thousands of people are missing around the world as a result of armed conflict and violence. Some go missing in action. Others are forcibly disappeared. And thousands lose contact with their loved ones as they flee fighting. Many never return and are never heard from again.
Disappearance is a global problem that has devastating, often long-lasting consequences for families, communities and entire societies. Yet in many cases, efforts to stop people from disappearing, or to find those who have gone missing, lack resources or political will.
In Iraq, sources place the number of people who went missing in 2003–2013 at between 250,000 and 1 million. In Colombia, an estimated 79,000 people have gone missing during an internal conflict spanning five decades .In South Sudan, more than 10,000 children have been registered as unaccompanied, separated or missing.
Having a loved one go missing can take a heavy emotional and material toll on families, sometimes for generations. Family members can experience severe psychological suffering linked to the uncertainty about the fate of a loved one.
Losing the main breadwinner can leave households struggling to make ends meet. And in some countries, relatives of missing people find it hard to remarry, claim their inheritance, receive benefits and generally rebuild their lives because they face legal and administrative hurdles.
Missing people are more than just individuals. They are also part of ethnic, religious, political and other communities that can struggle to cope with the loss of an important member. Sometimes, when people disappear, the impact of that loss is felt beyond communities and across the entire society, endangering peace and reconciliation efforts – often for decades after their disappearance.
Experts and practitioners must work hand in hand with families, States, international organizations and others to stop people from disappearing, find those who have gone missing and support the people affected.

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Young Americans accuse government of violating their rights to a healthy environment
by Inside Climate News, Our Childrens Trust
4 June 2019
The 21 children and young adults suing the federal government over climate change argue that they and their generation are already suffering the consequences of climate change, from worsening allergies and asthma to the health risks and stress that come with hurricanes, wildfires and sea level rise threatening their homes.
With the case back in court on Tuesday, some of the heaviest hitters in the public health arena—including 15 major health organizations and two former U.S. surgeons general—have been publicly backing them up.
Today''s children will feel the health impacts of climate change into adulthood if the federal government doesn''t transition away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, public health experts wrote in a letter published May 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), echoing a larger court brief signed onto by major health organizations.
"More frequent and longer heat waves, increasing intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts and wildfires, worsening infectious-disease exposures, food and water insecurity, and air pollution from fossil-fuel burning all threaten to destabilize our public health and health care infrastructure," the authors wrote.
Children and infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as their bodies are still developing, they said. Their respiratory rates are also higher, so particles from fossil fuel burning and ozone take a greater toll. Increasing temperatures contribute to heat stroke risk for children, and can harm babies in utero. And warming temperatures can affect the spread of disease-carrying vectors like ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease, and mosquitoes, which can carry viruses like Zika.
"These are affecting children''s health now, and certainly affecting their future," said Frederica Perera, a co-author of the letter and the director of the Center for Children''s Environmental Health at Columbia University. "It''s not an abstraction, and not some future threat. It is happening now."
Researchers are only beginning to understand the magnitude of health issues caused by climate change, said Renee Salas, another co-author of the letter and an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We are just scratching the surface in our understanding of what those health burdens truly are," she said.
Salas said she hopes the lawsuit and letter "can continue to make climate change personal for people, because health truly is that common denominator that we all share."
In their lawsuit, Juliana vs. United States, the children and young adults accuse the federal government of violating their constitutional rights by failing to take action on climate change and continuing to promote and subsidize fossil fuels.
The lawsuit is based on the public trust doctrine, a legal concept that the government holds resources such as land, water or fisheries in trust for its citizens. Climate litigators contend that the government is a trustee of the atmosphere, too, and the young plaintiffs argue that the government abrogated its duty to limit fossil fuel use and cut greenhouse gas emissions, despite knowledge for decades that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and changes the climate.
The federal government has fought the case at every turn and has tried repeatedly to get it dismissed, which led to this latest hearing.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard the two sides'' arguments, which the judges will now consider as they weigh whether the case will be allowed to move forward.
The children''s lawyer, Julia Olson from Our Children''s Trust, faced off against U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a Trump administration appointee who represented the oil giant BP in lawsuits over the nation''s largest oil spill and has repeatedly challenged the science of climate change.
So far, the government''s lawyers haven''t contested the argument that climate change is harming the plaintiffs. Instead, they have said the federal government is not responsible and have focused on arguments that the court doesn''t have the authority to order the political branches to act.
During the hearing, the judges asked tough questions of both sides. The Supreme Court had warned the appeals court to tread carefully in the highly unusual and potentially precedent-setting case, and the judges were doing so.
"You present compelling evidence that we have a real problem," Judge Andrew Hurwitz told Olson. "You present compelling evidence that we have inaction by the other two branches of government. It may even rise to the level of criminal neglect. The tough question for me, and I suspect for my colleagues, is do we get to act because of that."
"You''re arguing for us to break new ground," the judge said.
Clark, arguing for the government, told the judges that a ruling for the plaintiffs would be "a dagger at the separation of powers."
Olson focused on the children''s constitutional rights to life and personal security, saying future generations would look back and see that "government-sanctioned climate disruption was the constitutional issue of this century."
The plaintiffs are calling for sweeping changes in federal climate efforts and in government programs that subsidize or foster the development of fossil fuels. The trial, if allowed to proceed, could bring to light decades of federal policy on fossil fuels and climate change—including information previously unknown to the public.
The NEJM letter echoed an amicus brief filed in support of the young plaintiffs'' lawsuit by nearly 80 physicians and researchers and 15 health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
"There''s a really robust body of scientific literature that supports each of these different kinds of health impacts that are already being observed and are projected to get worse and worse," said Shaun Goho, deputy director of the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and one of the attorneys who filed the amicus brief.
"The Juliana generation is going to feel and suffer from those impacts in a way that''s really different and more extreme than what any previous generation has felt," Goho said.
Two former U.S. surgeons general also weighed in, publishing an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday. Drs. Richard Carmona and David Satcher warned about several effects of climate change on health, from cognitive impairments due to malnutrition to lost school days and mental health concerns.
"The country has eliminated polio, reduced cancer death rates and raised life expectancy over time," they wrote. "Now, as the country faces the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, the country needs to understand the public health implications of a warming climate."
The former surgeons general, like the NEJM letter, pointed out that children inherited the changing climate that threatens their future.
"They were born into this problem; they did not create it," they wrote. "They are uniquely vulnerable: their developing bodies suffer disproportionately from climate change''s most serious and deadly harms."

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