ICMP was created at the initiative of US President Bill Clinton in 1996 at the G-7 Summit in Lyon, France. The Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, was in its first year of implementation and ICMP’s initial mandate was to help account for the approximately 40,000 persons reported missing as a result of the fighting from 1991 to 1995.
In Croatia and Serbia, national agencies responsible for searching for the missing had been established early on in the conflict, with the focus on searching for missing persons from one side or the other, and this selective focus persisted in the early post-war years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had suffered the greatest physical damage and where the instances of missing persons were the most numerous, the fledgling post-war institutions generally lacked the capacity or the will to address the issue of missing persons in an efficient and inclusive way. Later, in its activities in Kosovo from 1999, and in Montenegro and the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia from 2001 ICMP encountered similar challenges though on a different scale. In every case ICMP sought the cooperation of all relevant institutions and stakeholders in establishing a rule of law-based missing persons’ process. This made it possible to develop a coherent, inclusive and effective approach. By encouraging the parties to cooperate, by asserting the right of families of the missing and others to an effective investigation, and by supporting processes and agencies that can address this issue effectively, ICMP played a significant role in the broader effort to rebuild a war-torn society.
ICMP has consistently sought to apply pluralistic and democratic standards to the overall process of locating and identifying missing persons. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, it has worked to ensure that resolving missing persons cases has effective political and administrative support and that work is carried out impartially. The policy framework developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina has successfully incorporated impartial, international technical and administrative standards.
The holistic institutional, legislative and technical process put in place in Bosnia and Herzegovina was underpinned by the establishment of the Missing Persons Institute of BiH(MPI) in 2005 and the creation of a Law on Missing Persons in 2004. It is important to emphasize that these initiatives have been carried forward under the auspices of the legislatures and judicial authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
ICMP’s contribution in the former Yugoslavia has led to the unprecedented achievement of accounting for over 27,000 (70%) of the 40,000 persons reported missing as a result of the conflict (the vast majority of cases being in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where over 30,000 persons were missing).
Since its inception in November 2001, ICMP’s missing persons DNA identification system has been the benchmark for technical innovation and performance in the field. The system complements forensic archaeological and anthropological techniques with a state-of-the-art process of DNA matching which has resulted in an exponential rise in the number and speed of identifications. ICMP has also developed the only specialized missing persons database (fDMS) to manage all data pertaining to its international missing persons process. While ICMP is focused on developing and applying political and rule of law-based strategies to address the issue of the missing in different societies and situations around the world, it brings a unique element of technical assistance to its set of activities.
As a consequence of ICMP’s success in the former Yugoslavia, and with the financial support of a growing number of donor governments, in 2003 ICMP’s mandate and sphere of activity were extended by supporting governments, to address the global issue of missing persons, including cases arising from natural disasters.
Since then, ICMP capacity building and technical assistance has had a major – often a pivotal – impact on the location, recovery and identification of missing persons in different parts of the world. Among many other cases, ICMP has been actively involved in programs including the following:
- The Asian Tsunami in December 2004;
- Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005;
- Efforts after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in 2003 to begin locating and identifying people missing for decades, as well as more recent cases;
- Efforts, amid renewed prospects of ending internal military conflict in Colombia in 2008, to begin locating and identifying persons who have gone missing since the early 1960s;
- Efforts, after the restoration of democracy in Chile to begin locating and identifying Chilean citizens who went missing during almost two decades of authoritarian rule; and
- Efforts to begin locating and identifying missing persons in Libya following the violent collapse of the 42-year long Gaddafi regime in 2011.
On 15 December 2014, the Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg signed a Treaty granting ICMP a new legal status. The Agreement constituted ICMP as a treaty-based international organization with its own system of governance and international capacities. It provided for a new organizational structure, including a Board of Commissioners, a Conference of State Parties, and an executive to be headed by a Director General. The Framework Agreement stipulated that ICMP would establish its Headquarters in The Hague, a move that was completed in 2017.
Evolution of the Missing Persons Issue
Since the establishment of ICMP in 1996 the issue of missing persons has rightly come to be understood as a global challenge – and one that demands a structured and sustainable international response. ICMP has been at the forefront of efforts to develop such a response.
The international community’s approach to locating and identifying missing persons, particularly in the wake of conflict and disasters, has developed as a natural progression from broader efforts to build peaceful states through transitional justice strategies and rule of law initiatives that attempt to redress the legacy of violent conflict and massive human rights abuses. Such strategies have also had resonance in cases of persons missing as a result of disasters and other causes, where law-based, forensic approaches are becoming the norm.
Furthermore, developments in the field of genetics, the use of modern forensic methods and the creation of dedicated databases have made it possible to locate and identify missing persons with a level of efficiency and certainty that was not possible before.
These developments, in which ICMP has played a leading role, have had a significant impact on countries emerging from conflict or from large-scale disasters. It is increasingly the norm for domestic stakeholders to assume ownership of the missing persons process. In addition, more cases are being properly investigated and more perpetrators are being held to account; civil society is actively engaged, and modern forensic methods, including DNA analysis, are being used.
This in turn has had a significant bearing on criminal justice, on strengthening the rule of law and on efforts to make sure that relatives of the missing can assert their right to know the fate of loved ones and have the means to seek justice and reparations.