ICMP DG Op-Ed: How the International Commission on Missing Persons works in Ukraine

The Hague, 30 August 2022: The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is preparing to launch a major program in Ukraine. ICMP will work with government institutions and with families of the missing and civil society organizations to help the authorities develop a process that will make it possible to locate missing persons and reunite them with their families and also to identify human remains from mass and clandestine graves.

Ukrainian law and the international agreements that Ukraine has signed, including the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Ukraine ratified in 2015, uphold the rights of families of the missing.

These include the right to the truth about the fate and whereabouts of family members, the right to an effective and official investigation, the right to seek, receive and impart Information, the right to form associations and communicate with international organizations, the right to family life (children have the right not to be separated from their relatives against their will), the right to effective access to justice and adequate reparations, the right to manage and control personal information, and the right not to be discriminated against on any grounds, including gender, religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

The National Police report that there have been 32,028 cases of missing persons in Ukraine since 24 February 2022, and of this number, 14,504 are still missing. In addition, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced. Many have been separated from their families.

Since ICMP was first invited to assist the Ukrainian authorities, in 2014, we have worked productively with institutional partners. ICMP doesn’t seek to duplicate the work of the agencies that are responsible for accounting for missing persons – it seeks to provide those agencies with assistance based on its expertise and experience gained from accounting for missing persons from conflict scenarios all around the world. There are effective strategies and techniques that ICMP has developed – and we want to put these at the disposal of our partners in Ukraine.

Genetic science and database technology are major pillars of any successful missing persons program. DNA can be used to reunite families that have been separated, and it can be used to identify persons who are missing and presumed deceased. DNA is extracted from human remains recovered from clandestine and mass graves and compared to DNA provided through saliva or blood samples by relatives of the missing.

ICMP can provide the Ukrainian authorities with access to its DNA laboratory in The Hague, which has a highly developed capacity to obtain DNA profiles from very difficult cases of unidentified human remains, such as degraded bone samples. ICMP has conducted the world’s largest missing persons DNA testing program, having successfully tested more than 60,000 bone samples and established a database of more than 100,000 family reference DNA profiles to support the identification of more than 20,000 missing persons.

ICMP can collect family reference samples inside Ukraine and in neighboring countries and other countries hosting large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. ICMP support can expedite the process of identifying large numbers of missing persons, ensure scientific surety, and through proper chain of custody, link the identity of the missing person to the crime scene, thus ensuring a high standard of investigations in the thousands of missing persons cases that Ukraine is confronting.

ICMP can also help to develop Ukraine’s institutional capacities and legislative framework and provide extensive training in all aspects of the missing persons process from data collection, to data protection and processing.

ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System (iDMS) enables the comprehensive processing of missing persons data globally, and the Online Inquiry Center, accessed through ICMP’s website, makes it possible to report a missing person from anywhere in the world.

ICMP is already providing concrete assistance to Ukraine. In July 2022, samples from 17 human remains were collected by ICMP from the Ministry of the Interior and transferred to the ICMP laboratory in The Hague for DNA extraction and analysis. Procedures for transferring DNA test results have been put in place and a first DNA-based identification has been submitted to the authorities. The mortal remains of a missing person have thus been conclusively identified and returned to family members for burial, while the ongoing criminal investigation has been strengthened. This is a process that ICMP seeks to extend to all cases where persons reported missing are no longer alive.

ICMP’s Ukraine Program, currently supported by the European Union and with support from other international donors soon to follow, will benefit families of the missing; it will support the agencies that are responsible for accounting for the missing, and it will support the cause of justice and truth – which will remain an essential element in the country’s recovery long after the war has come to an end.

The Op-Ed was published in Ukrainska Pravda