In the last 20 years, governments in the Western Balkans have been able to account for more than 70 per cent of the 40,000 people who were missing at the end of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Almost 28,000 have been accounted for, which is an unprecedented achievement following a large-scale conflict anywhere in the world.
The high proportion of people who have been accounted for shows clearly that the missing persons process adopted in the Western Balkans – and spearheaded by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) – works.
It has succeeded by using a three-pronged approach – creating legislation and institutions to sustain the process over the long term, developing a network of effective family associations that can advocate for their rights, and deploying state-of-the-art DNA technology, supported by advanced data systems capacities.
Forensic science capability has expanded continuously since ICMP first pioneered the process of mass DNA matching in 2001.
Just last week, the Missing Persons Institute in Bosnia and Herzegovina was able to inform a family member that three relatives had been identified, in this case using a revolutionary new technique known as Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS).
This was the first time that MPS, which is being developed at ICMP’s laboratory system in The Hague, had been applied successfully to identify human remains from the Western Balkans.
The technique makes it possible to achieve results in highly challenging cases, where current technologies have failed and it also enables identifications to be made between more distant relatives. This offers new hope for families who are still waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones.
As we acknowledge what has been achieved, it is important to remember that 12,000 persons are still unaccounted for in the region – the effort to account for the missing is by no means over. The work must continue.
Technological developments offer hope, but so too does sustained commitment by countries in the region to move forward with their respective missing persons strategies and also – this is key – to cooperate with one another.
A group of Kosovo Serbs, relatives of missing persons, stage a protest in the town of Gracanica. (The banner reads: “Why does the International community keep silent”). Photo: EPA/ARMANDO BABANI.
The joint declaration signed in London in June 2018 by Western Balkans heads of government, renewing their commitment to cooperate in the effort to account for those who are still missing was a very significant step.
This was followed by the signing of a Framework Plan to implement the Joint Declaration. Last November, at ICMP headquarters in The Hague, representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, came together to sign the Framework Plan and formally undertook to work together as the regional Missing Persons Group.
Regional cooperation is essential in order to sustain a successful process.
It rests on three pillars. The first is the operational need to share information – as it is not uncommon that clandestine gravesites are located in one country, families of the missing are in another, and data pertinent to the search is in a third.
The second is the profound solidarity that exists among families of the missing across states and across communities, as those who have shared the harrowing experience of losing a loved one have a common bond.
The third is the application of a law-based, non-discriminatory approach that includes all stakeholders in the process. Families of the missing do not seek the support of the authorities as an indulgence but as a right: governments have a statutory obligation under international and domestic law to do everything possible to account for the missing and to uphold the right of survivors to truth, justice and reparations.
It may seem that, with the passage of time, prospects for finding and identifying missing persons diminish. However, the introduction of improved investigative and forensic techniques mean that it is possible to locate clandestine graves and identify the people buried in them, even after the passage of more than two decades.
Upholding the rights of families of the missing is not only a matter for the families themselves, it affects society as a whole. When the rights of the most vulnerable groups in society are upheld, the rights of all citizens are upheld.
I believe it’s a positive sign that in regard to the issue of accounting for the missing, governments in the region have grasped this and are actively working to fulfil the commitments they have made.
Kathryne Bomberger is the Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons. She is visiting the region this week to meet heads of governments and officials responsible for accounting for the missing, to discuss steps to facilitate implementation of the Framework Plan that was signed last November.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.