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New technologies and new policies: the ICRC's evolving approach to working with separated families

  • Olivier Dubois, Katharine Marshall and Siobhan Sparkes McNamara

The field of humanitarian action is far from static, and the ICRC has worked over the years to evolve and respond to changing needs and changing circumstances. The past several decades have seen a proliferation of humanitarian actors, protracted, complex conflicts, and the rapid rise of new technologies that have significantly impacted how humanitarian work is done. The ICRC has been continually challenged to adapt in this changing environment, and its core work of supporting separated families – through restoration of family links and through support to the families of the missing – provides insight into ways that it has met this challenge and areas in which it may still seek to improve.

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1 Dunant, Henry, A Memory of Solferino, ICRC, Geneva, 1986 (original 1862), p. 66.

2 Further information on the Family Links Network and role of the CTA can be found on the Family Links website, available at: See also Restoring Family Links Strategy, ICRC, Geneva, 2009, available at: The CTA also coordinates the tracing offices of the ICRC and provides assistance to state authorities for setting up and running national information bureaus as provided for by international humanitarian law. See Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 135 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 122; Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 287 (entered into force 21 October 1950), Art. 136. All internet references were last accessed in October 2013 unless otherwise stated.

3 Stoddard, Abby, ‘Humanitarian NGOs: challenges and trends’, in Macrae, Joanna and Harmer, Adele (eds.), Humanitarian Policy Group Report: Humanitarian Action and the ‘Global War on Terror’: A Review of Trends and Issues, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2003, p. 25, available at:

4 Darcy, James, The MDGs and the Humanitarian–Development Divide, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2008, p. 2, available at:

5 Steets, Julie, Donor Strategies for Addressing the Transition Gap and Linking Humanitarian and Development Assistance, Global Public Policy Institute, June 2011, available at:

6 Interview with ICRC staff member (1996–present), 25 October 2012.

8 L'Agence Centrale de Recherches du CICR: un peu d'histoire, ICRC, 1990, available at:

10 Djurović, Gradimir, The Central Tracing Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva, 1986, p. 121.

11 Ibid., p. 122. To see an example of a civilian message (form 61), see Annex 8, p. 272.

12 G. Djurović, above note 10, pp. 122–124.

13 Annual Report 2004, ICRC, Geneva, 2005, p. 96, available at:

14 ‘Former Guantanamo inmate Sami El-haj explains why ICRC visits were important to him’, ICRC, 2009, available at:; see also Sami El-haj, ‘A Guantanamo detainee's perspective’, in this issue.

16 Universal Postal Union, Postal Statistics Database. Query tool available at: See items 1.2, ‘Population (millions)’, and 3.5, ‘Average number of inhabitants served by a permanent office’, for the DRC, 2011.

18 In the DRC, there has been an 8 per cent decrease in RCMs collected since 2008 as compared to a 58 per cent reduction globally. ICRC Protection Data, as recorded in the Prot5 Database.

19 Restoring Family Links Strategy, above note 2, p. 22.

20 ICRC Protection Data, as recorded in the Prot5 Database.

21 Annual Report 2011, ICRC, Geneva, 2012, p. 138, available at: (last visited 4 February 2013).

23 ICRC Protection Data, as recorded in the Prot5 Database.

24 For a description of the ICRC's telephone services for refugees in Ethiopia, see Annual Report 2012, ICRC, Geneva, 2013, p. 135, available at:; and Restoring Family Links in Ethiopia, ICRC, 2013, available at:

25 ‘Persons detained by the US in relation to armed conflict and counter-terrorism – the role of the ICRC’, ICRC, 2013, available at:

26 See Philips, Susan D., Video Visits for Children Whose Parents Are Incarcerated: In Whose Best Interest?, The Sentencing Project, Washington, DC, 2012, p. 3.

27 See reference to ‘live video meetings’ on the Korean Red Cross website, available at:

28 For online lists of the missing, see the RFL website, available at:

29 Restoring Family Links Strategy, above note 2, p. 24.

30 Ibid., above note 2, pp. 23–24.

31 Ibid., pp. 22 and 28.

32 See ‘crowdsourcing’, on Merriam-Webster, available at:

33 Jessica Heinzelman and Carol Waters, Crowdsourcing Crisis Information in Disaster-Affected Haiti, United States Institute of Peace, October 2010, available at:

34 Meier, Patrick and Munro, Rob, ‘The unprecedented role of SMS in disaster response: learning from Haiti’, in SAIS Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2010, pp. 9293.

35 See ‘Google Person Finder’, available at:

36 David Goldman, ‘Google gives “20%” to Japan crisis’, in CNN, 17 March 2011, available at: (last visited 1 February 2013).

37 For an analysis of the data protection challenges faced by websites designed for finding missing persons, see Reidenberg, Joel R., Gellman, Robert, Debelak, Jamela, Elewa, Adam and Liu, Nancy, Privacy and Missing Persons After Natural Disasters, Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., and New York, 2013.

38 See, for example, the FAQs page of the Google Person Finder site: ‘Q5. Who has access to the Google Person Finder data? All data entered into Google Person Finder is available to the public and searchable and accessible by anyone. Google does not review or verify the accuracy of the data’. Available at: (last visited 14 September 2012).

39 Paul Currion, ‘If all you have is a hammer – how useful is humanitarian crowdsourcing?’, in, available at:

40 Tapia, Andrea H., Bajpai, Kartikeya, Jansen, Bernard J., and Yen, John, Seeking the Trustworthy Tweet: Can Microblogged Data Fit the Information Needs of Disaster Response and Humanitarian Relief Organizations?, Proceedings of the 8th International ISCRAM Conference, Lisbon, Portugal, May 2011, p. 3, available at:

41 Meier, Patrick, ‘New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 884, 2011, p. 1245.

42 Professional Standards for Protection Work, 2nd edition, ICRC, Geneva, 2013, p. 113.

43 Ibid, pp. 81–83.

44 See ‘Crisis mappers – the humanitarian technology network’, available at:

45 See ‘Data protection protocols for crisis mapping’, on Patrick Meier's blog, iRevolution, 11 April 2013, available at:; World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on Technology and the Future of Humanitarian Action, IFRC, Geneva, 2013, pp. 146 and 185.

46 The ICRC defines missing persons as follows: ‘Missing persons are those persons whose families are without news of them and/or are reported unaccounted for, on the basis of reliable information, owing to armed conflict or internal violence. The term family and relatives must be understood in their broadest sense, including family members and close friends, and taking into account the cultural environment. Missing persons and their families are direct victims of armed conflict or internal violence. As such they are part of the mandate of the ICRC.’ The Missing and their Families: ICRC Internal Operational Guidelines, ICRC, Geneva, 2004, p. 22. See also subsequent publications available to the general public: Missing Persons: A Handbook for Parliamentarians, Handbook for Parliamentarians No. 17, 2009, p. 9, available at:

47 See Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, 12 August 1949, Art. 26; Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, Art. 34; Customary IHL Rule 117, Accounting for Missing Persons.

48 Sassòli, Marco and Tougas, Marie-Louise, ‘The ICRC and the missing’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 84, No. 848, 2002, pp. 733736.

49 Western, Jon and Goldstein, Joshua S., ‘Humanitarian intervention comes of age: lessons from Somalia to Libya’, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 6, 2011, pp. 5152.

50 Lana Pasic, ‘Bosnia's vast foreign financial assistance re-examined: statistics and results’, in, 21 June 2011, available at:; see also Peter Uvin, ‘The influence of aid in violent conflict situations’, OECD Development Assistance Committee, Informal Task Force on Conflict, Peace, and Development Cooperation, 1999, available at:

51 Girod, Christophe, ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina: tracing missing persons’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 32, No. 312, 1996, pp. 390391.

52 Ibid., p. 389.

53 For more information on the challenges faced, see Danziger, Nick, Missing Lives, ICRC and Dewi Lewis, 2010. This book tells fifteen individual stories of families whose loved ones went missing during the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo: ‘In limbo they were unable to grieve, to claim inheritance, to sell property, or – most poignantly – to hold a funeral’. Extracts available at:

54 Ibid., pp. 390–391.

55 ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 years on, thousands still missing’, ICRC, 2005, available at: (last visited 4 February 2013).

56 For example, the need to standardise the forensic response to the issue of the missing was put forward in Cordner, Stephen and McKelvie, Helen, ‘Developing standards in international forensic work to identify missing persons’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 84, No. 848, December 2002, pp. 867884.

57 Morris Tidball-Binz, ‘Forensic investigations into the missing: recommendations and operational best practices’, in Forensic Anthropology and Medicine: Complementary Sciences from Recovery to Cause of Death, Totowa, 2006, pp. 387–388.

58 ‘The missing: action to resolve the problem of people unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict or internal violence and to assist their families’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 85, No. 849, March 2003, pp. 188–193.

59 Strategy of the ICRC Forensic Services and Plan of Action 2009–2014, ICRC, Geneva, 2010, p. 3.

60 ICRC, Missing Persons on the Territory of Former Yugoslavia, newsletter, April 2008, available at:

61 Guiding Principles/Model Law on the Missing, ICRC, Geneva, 2009, available at:

62 Reference is made to the guidelines on mechanisms in Annual Report 2011, above note 21, p. 56.

63 ICRC, ‘ICRC receives award for contributions to humanitarian forensic sciences’, press release, 14 September 2011, available at:

64 Strategy of the ICRC Forensic Services and Plan of Action 2009–2014, above note 59, pp. 3–4. While the Forensic Strategy is an internal ICRC document, it is referenced in the Annual Report 2011, above note 21. In addition, the early days of the ICRC's forensic services unit are similarly described in The Missing: ICRC Progress Report as follows: ‘The core activities of the ICRC forensic experts include: needs assessments and operational support for ICRC field activities related to human remains and forensic science; development and dissemination of ICRC guidelines; training and networking with forensic experts and institutions worldwide’. ICRC, The Missing: ICRC Progress Report, Geneva, 2006, p. 14. This was published in 2006, and the emphasis on training, networking and dissemination of guidelines is in line with the current focus on capacity-building and dissemination of good practices.

65 ‘Forensic science and humanitarian action’, ICRC website, available at:

66 ICRC, The Ante-Mortem/Post-Mortem Database: An Information Management Application for Missing Persons/Forensic Data, ICRC, Geneva, 2012, p. 2, available at:

67 Ibid., p. 2.

68 Accompanying the Families of Missing Persons: A Practical Handbook, ICRC, Geneva, 2013, p. 12.

69 See, for example, The Experience Project, a website dedicated to shared experiences, where individuals can join online conversations with others who have experienced similar things. Conversations include ‘I lost a loved one to suicide’, available at:

70 ICMP Online Inquiry Center, available at:

71 For example, the ICRC regularly shares practices through contributions to UN reports. Recent examples include: UN Human Rights Council, Report by the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on Best Practices in the Matter of Missing Persons, UN Doc. A/HRC/16/70, 21 February 2011, available at:; and UN General Assembly, Report of the UN Secretary-General on Missing Persons, UN Doc. A/67/267, 8 August 2012, available at:

72 A. Stoddard, above note 3.

73 For a discussion on the tension between humanitarian objectives and the pursuit of justice, see Wortel, Eva, ‘Humanitarians and their moral stance in war: the underlying values’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 91, No. 876, 2009.

74 Anne-Marie La Rosa, ‘The missing and transitional justice: the right to know and the struggle against impunity’, in Report of the Second Universal Meeting of National Committees on International Humanitarian Law: Legal Measures and Mechanisms to Prevent Disappearances, to Establish the Fate of Missing Persons, and to Assist Their Families, ICRC, Geneva, 2007, p. 155, available at:

75 Ibid., p. 160. For a discussion on the challenges associated with coordinating humanitarian action, see also Stephenson, Max Jr., ‘Making humanitarian relief networks more effective: operational coordination, trust and sense making’, in Disasters, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2005, pp. 337–350.

* This article was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.

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International Review of the Red Cross
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