Missing persons and international humanitarian law

In war, many people go missing, causing anguish and uncertainty for their families and friends. People have the right to know what happened to their missing relatives. Governments, the military authorities and armed groups have an obligation to provide information and assist efforts to put families back together.

Both civilians and combatants go missing in armed conflicts. The fate of soldiers on the battlefield or in captivity may be unknown. Families separated by the conflict may face the anguish of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Such families often face the pain of ongoing uncertainty and are unable to grieve.

International humanitarian law and human rights law require parties to a conflict to take measures to ensure that people do not go missing in an armed conflict. If they do go missing, the parties are required to take all possible measures to ensure their fate is known and their families informed.

Measures can be taken during a conflict to prevent people going missing. If all combatants carried proper identity documents, for example, their fate could be recorded. All deaths should be registered and information kept on burials or the fate of human remains. Also, records on people detained or arrested must be kept.

Regrettably, adequate measures to prevent disappearances and provide vital information have not been taken in recent conflicts. No continent has escaped the problem and globally hundreds of thousands of people are affected.


Legal resources


Treaty law

Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977 – art. 32-34

Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949 – art. 26

International Convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, 2006


Customary law

The dead

Missing persons

Enforced disappearance

Recording and notification of personal details of persons deprived of their liberty


Domestic law

Guiding principles / Model Law on the missing

Missing Persons and their Families

Back to Missing – Main Page

See more about Law and War: online database on International Humanitarian Law