Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Missing Persons in Armed Conflict

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
June 11, 2019


Thank you, Mr. Minister, for convening and presiding over today’s briefing. We also thank ICRC President Maurer and Operations Director Ghelani for participating today and we commend their teams for their critical work to address the global challenge of missing persons. The ICRC has brought a much-needed international spotlight to the issue over the past years. All too often we hear stories of people going missing in times of armed conflict, including notably in the Balkans and Kuwait, and most recently in Iraq and Syria.

As we have heard from other speakers, many thousands of Syrian civilians remain missing after eight years of conflict, the vast majority of whom we believe were forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime. Those still unjustly detained in Syria need to be released. Families deserve information from the regime on the fate of their loved ones. Taking such basic, humane steps would be helpful in building a basis necessary for a successful political process in Syria in line with resolution 2254.

Mr. President, since 2005, the United States has consistently funded efforts to support the identification, security, and excavation of mass graves in Iraq, as our UK colleague has noted. Over 6,000 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS in 2014, of those approximately 3,000 remain unaccounted for along with hundreds of Christians and Shia Muslims.

We strongly support the International Commission on Missing Persons to provide training to Iraqi ministries in the scientific investigation of mass graves and to provide support to victim’s families. The United States also supports the United Nations Investigative Team Against Da’esh to collect, store, and preserve evidence of ISIS’s atrocities. We recently committed $2 million in support of UNITAD’s first exhumations in Sinjar.

More than 20 years after the war in the Balkans, approximately 10,000 people there remain missing – a figure that should make us all pause. We welcome the partnership between the ICRC and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals to support the humanitarian search for missing persons in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. President, Kuwait’s own experience regarding the whereabouts and fate of its own missing persons is one none of us should forget. Nearly twenty-eight years have passed since the end of the first Gulf War, but it remains important to address this issue and bring some measure of closure to the families of those still missing. The United States is working diligently to provide satellite imagery to assist in the identification of remains from the conflict.

Families separated by conflict may face the anguish of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. This pain can prevent surviving relatives from grieving, from reconciling, and from recovering. This uncertainty also negatively affects a society’s ability to seek justice and reconciliation.

Joint efforts to address the outstanding issue of missing persons by Kuwait and Iraq together exemplify how countries can emerge from conflict to work in a spirit of cooperation and friendship. It is an example that the international community should applaud as a positive step towards justice and reconciliation.

Mr. President, as the unanimous adoption of today’s resolution, with its 62 co-sponsors makes clear, all parties to armed conflict should allow families to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the missing, to include prisoners of war.

Illustrating our own national commitment to address this critical issue, the U.S. Department of Defense has established the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accountability Agency. Its purpose is to fulfill a national promise to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing U.S. personnel to their families and our fellow citizens.

While it is clear much work remains to be done to bring closure to the families of missing persons around the world, we remain committed to participating in partnering with the ICRC and others to do what we can to support humanitarian efforts to recover remains.

Mr. President, it is essential to account for the missing so that families can have some certainty about the fate of their loved ones. Today’s adoption marks the first collective call by this Council to address this global humanitarian priority – let us now turn our words into actions, together. Thank you, Mr. President.