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    Guatemala editorial: “Recognizing and ensuring the rights of missing people and their families: putting right a wrong from the past”

    By Karim Khallaayoun, head of the ICRC’s mission in Guatemala

    When someone disappears, the life of their family and community is turned upside down, never to be the same again. For families desperately seeking news about their loved ones, the disappearance fills them with a deep sense of anguish. Dreams for the future are put on hold and life wavers between the need to carry on searching and the need to move on.

    In Guatemala, an unknown number of people – but they are likely to be in their thousands – face the painful reality of not knowing what happened to their loved ones, sometimes for decades. Irrespective of how much time has passed, families cling on to the hope that they will see their loved ones again. For the well-being of these families and society at large, providing answers is a humanitarian imperative and helps put right a wrong from the past.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began its humanitarian operations in Guatemala at the end of the 1980s and, since then, we have seen first-hand the indescribable pain suffered by those who are looking for a missing loved one. We understand the lived reality of those who lost a relative during the internal armed conflict that lasted for more than three decades, from 1960 to 1996, of those who migrated without knowing what happened to their loved one, of those who reported a relative missing as a result of armed violence or in other circumstances.

    Since 2010, Guillermina has been looking for her daughter-in-law, who disappeared en route to Mexico. The uncertainty she feels is compounded by that felt by the children left in her care.

    She left me with two children: a three-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. It’s because of them that I continue with this battle. They say they want to know where their mother is (…) The truth is that years and years are going by, and some people think that the pain has gone, but no, the pain doesn’t go – it’s always there.

    Official information, despite being fragmented, presents us with a truth beyond doubt: disappearance affects both the past and the present. It is estimated that around 40,000 people disappeared during the internal armed conflict. The National Civil Police officially registered 38,000 cases of disappearances between 2009 and 2022, and it is not known how many of those people have been found. According to data from the Public Ministry, in 2023, there were on average five Isabel-Claudina alerts a day for missing women and 17 Alba-Keneth alerts a day for missing children and adolescents.

    These figures give an idea of the valuable efforts undertaken by the Guatemalan state to respond to cases of vulnerable people who have gone missing, including establishing specialist alert mechanisms to find women, children and adolescents. However, the fact that information is fragmented and held by different organizations – including the Public Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior, as well as the National Civil Police – presents a significant challenge when trying to understand the scale of the issue and its dynamics and provide an effective response to families, who, irrespective of the circumstances of the disappearance, all have the same need: to find out what happened to their loved ones and find them.

    What is needed to address the issue is a national register that consolidates data about the missing and deceased (including information about unidentified remains), regardless of whether they are recent or historical cases.

    Our experience in supporting the relatives of the missing, not only in Guatemala but around the world, has allowed us to reaffirm the need for a specialist legal framework developed together with families that adheres to international standards. Such a framework would recognize and protect the rights of the missing and their relatives, and provide the foundation of an institutional framework that enables states to fulfil their obligations to clarify the whereabouts of all missing people and therefore satisfy the right to know of their relatives, while also taking into account their economic, physical and mental health needs and their need for psychosocial support.

    This legal framework would include a centralized search mechanism to facilitate coordination across different institutions in order to search, locate, identify and return the missing and/or deceased. It would provide a clear route for people searching for a loved one, as well as a mechanism for following up on cases, including for those who disappeared during the internal armed conflict.

    Families are adrift on a fathomless sea of uncertainty and need a comprehensive regulatory framework to recognize, prevent and address disappearances and repair the damage.

    The ICRC has an exclusively humanitarian mission to alleviate the suffering of people affected by armed conflict and violence and we have been working in Guatemala to offer a multifaceted response to help the relatives of the missing cope with their confusing loss and to develop tools to help in their search. In recent years, we have also worked closely with civil society organizations in various parts of the country, supporting their initiatives to help those who are still without news of a loved one; and we continue our work to highlight the humanitarian consequences of a disappearance. We reaffirm our commitment to support families, organizations and authorities, as we are convinced that by combining our efforts and taking a long-term approach, we can achieve results.

    Disappearance is a tragedy that is often consigned to obscurity, but not for the families. They do not forget, do not stop dreaming and do not stop searching, even after time.

    Each and every family continues walking the streets looking for answers, asking if there have been any sightings and knocking on doors with the hope of seeing the face they long to see on the other side, awaiting news. The families remind us of the wrongs that have not been righted but that could start to be addressed through specific measures, such as publicly recognizing disappearances and a law to prevent it from happening and to address it.

    We acknowledge Source link for the information.



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