The Hague, 18 February 2023 – Tuesday, February 14, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) welcomed a delegation of scientists and government officials from Vietnam for a workshop on the use of modern forensic genetics to identify people who went missing decades ago as a result of the war in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese delegation, led by Professor Dr. Chu Hoang Ha, Vice President of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), included scientists from the Center for DNA Identification (part of VAST’s Institute of Biotechnology), and experts in the identification of war remains from relevant departments and ministries in Vietnam. International scientists represented at the workshop included Dr. Timothy McMahon, Director of the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and Dr. Charla Marshall, Head of AFDIL’s Emerging Technologies Section; Dr. Tam Ngo, cultural anthropological researcher from the German Max Planck Society; ancient DNA specialist Dr. Elena Zavala, University of Berkeley, CA (USA); Andreas Tillmar, Assistant Professor of Forensic Genetics from the Swedish National Board of Forensic Medicine, and Dr. Thomas Parsons, former Director of Science and Technology of the ICMP.
ICMP Commissioner Thao Griffiths explained that ICMP is in “a unique position” because of its work with governments and civil society throughout the world, to act as a repository for best practice. “Work on the legacy of the war in Vietnam, especially the program to account for missing persons, has been my life-time commitment,” Ms. Griffiths said, adding that the task of locating and identifying hundreds of thousands of persons who went missing half a century or more ago in Vietnam will continue well into the future.
At the workshop, ICMP and the Vietnamese delegation held a ceremony to hand over 100 samples of unidentified human remains from Vietnam. Prof. Dr. Chu Hoang Ha emphasized the importance of the project and the challenges involved in identifying hundreds of thousands of war remains. He underlined that the low quality of the samples due to degradation over long periods of time and unfavorable burial environments would necessitate cutting-edge DNA technology. VAST researchers will learn from and collaborate with ICMP to apply a new technology called Massively Parallel Sequencing to extract DNA Profiles from the samples and establish protocols and workflow practices.
“This project will have meaningful impact for Vietnam,” said Tim Reiser, former senior foreign policy aide to former US Senator Patrick Leahy, who played a leading role in forging US-Vietnamese cooperation. “This work has the possibility to have an immense healing effect on people of Vietnam,” Mr. Reiser said. “Discussions today have already shown that this process can be of immense value to Vietnam and can also support the relationship between Vietnam and the United States. What we do here can serve as an example of two parties on opposing sides of a conflict coming together to account for the missing.”
Vietnamese Ambassador to the Netherlands Pham Viet Anh thanked USAID and ICMP for providing funds and technical expertise to address the issue, and for “mobilizing friends in the US and around the world to help Vietnam search for those who were lost in the conflict.”
Ritu Tariyal, Director of the Reconciliation and Inclusive Development Office at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Vietnam, “This is not simply an obligation on our part – it’s the right thing to do.” This workshop was part of the Advanced Identification Solutions for Missing Persons in Vietnam project, implemented by ICMP with generous funding from USAID, to help develop and optimize new and advanced DNA analysis workflows suited to Vietnam. In October 2022 ICMP signed an implementation plan with VAST, which followed the signing of Memorandum of Intent (MoI) between the USAID and the Vietnam Office for Missing Persons (VNOSMP) in July 2020.
ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating and identifying missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons.