ICMP’s Archaeology and Anthropology Division team efforts over the last two decades in the Western Balkans and Iraq

A forensic expert of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) works on trying to identify the remains of a victim of the Srebrenica massacre, at the ICMP centre near Tuzla

Ian Hanson describes the role of ICMP’s archaeology and anthropology teams in locating and excavating clandestine graves.

Since 1996, ICMP has helped Bosnia and Herzegovina develop institutional and technical capacity to address the issue of missing persons in a non-discriminatory manner, incorporating international standards. The BIH Law on Missing Persons, enacted in 2004, was the first such piece of legislation in a post-conflict country related to missing persons anywhere in the world. It codifies the “right to the truth regarding the fate of missing relatives,” as well as a right to be informed about investigation efforts. It established the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) as an institution of the State and with a mandate to search for and identify missing persons across the entire territory of BIH. The MPI was launched on 30 August 2005, the International Day of the Disappeared, marking the transfer of responsibility from Entity commissions on missing persons to the State level and the end of a segregated process of accounting for the missing. The unified Central Records of Missing Persons (CEN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, established as part of the MPI, was completed in February 2011. It combined 12 separate databases with information on missing persons collected by the former Federation Commission on Missing Persons, the RS Office for Tracing Missing and Detained Persons and the State Commission on Tracing Missing Persons, as well as data from ICRC and ICMP.

The Archaeology and Anthropology Division (previously the Excavation and Examination Division) in ICMP’s Science and Technology Department provides technical support to help authorities find and identify the missing.

The AAD searches for clandestine graves, undertakes excavations and anthropological examinations, takes DNA samples and assists with identification. When field support work began in 2001, the excavation procedure followed the model used by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). ICMP responded to requests for assistance at gravesites and other locations from the relevant missing persons commissions involved, and later from the MPI.

As much of the work initially consisted of support for finding and identifying the Srebrenica missing. Examinations of remains were complicated by the fact that thousands of discrete body parts were found in primary and secondary graves. Approaches were developed to re-associate body parts using anthropological assessment and match reports from DNA testing.

A large number of grave locations were pinpointed after the conflict through witness information, while the ICTY located some 60 Srebrenica mass graves using aerial imagery. There were many smaller excavations, and monitors were employed to observe and report on the work. The AAD provided excavation reports for use by prosecutors. It also collated data on gravesites from all available sources.

The AAD has been active throughout the western Balkans. Major exhumation work, outside the Srebrenica theatre, has been undertaken in Tomasica in northwest Bosnia, Batajnica, near Belgrade, and Slavonski Brod in Croatia.

The number of graves found and cases recovered in Bosnia and Herzegovina dropped after 2009 after the existing list of pinpointed Srebrenica graves had been excavated. However, the AAD has maintained consistent support for excavations when the MPI has requested assistance.

In 2009, ICMP’s Iraq program deployed AAD staff to develop and undertake training for Iraqi authorities in excavation, examination and crime-scene management. Excavations mentored by the AAD recovered several thousand cases, and teams investigated some 150 graves. Similar training started in Libya in 2013.

An assessment carried out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2012 determined that while data and information on potential gravesites existed it was not being consolidated and analysed by authorities. It was also determined that aerial imagery could be utilised to find sites. The conclusion was that more of the missing could be found with combined data assessment and review of events, determining dates on which groups of missing disappeared, and linking these to suspected locations and known graves.

The AAD began assessment of data and analysis using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as well as review of remains found at clandestine gravesites. Data was collected from databases of other organizations, including the ICTY.

This coordination effort reached a new level in 2015 when Operational Working Groups were set up in each region of Bosnia and Herzegovina to focus stakeholders on locations suspected to hold large numbers of missing. This has resulted in re-excavation of a number of graves, new graves found and dozens of new locations pinpointed for search. Together with requests for excavation submitted to the prosecutor’s office based on MPI information, over 900 locations are waiting for further investigation, assessment and excavation by authorities.

By 2013 it had become apparent that mortuary facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina held some 3,300 unidentified parts of skeletal remains. After extensive consultations with BiH authorities, the process of reviewing these cases began. AAD developed a process to undertake this work under the auspices of the NN Working Group, mandated by the BIH Prosecutor’s Office. As a result of re-examination of cases and additional DNA analysis, it was found that some 70 percent of cases examined could be closed, with new identifications and re-associations of remains made.. This leaves a core of unmatched cases at each facility.

The AAD process has been refined and developed into standing operating procedures based on best practice. The success of a process that pinpoints grave locations and resolves NN cases is due to the combined efforts of different ICMP departments:. They provide coordination with authorities, liaision with families, data management and analysis, identification matching and logistics support. This provides a framework in which AAD can effectively assist authorities.

The process that has evolved now has global applications to provide analysis, consultancy and capacity building for governments. There are tens of thousands of NN cases globally requiring review, and across the world authorities struggle to find the missing. AAD has the capacity to find the missing and so allow the DNA labs and Data Systems to provide the means of identification, as well as assisting all ICMP departments in advising authorities on how to address the issue of the missing.