The Hague, 15 September 2023: The Ukrainian government’s commitment to efforts to fulfill its obligations to families of the missing should be recognized and applauded, the Chairperson of the International Commission on Missing Person (ICMP), Knut Vollebaek, said on Thursday.
Ambassador Vollebaek was speaking at a panel discussion organized at ICMP’s Headquarters in The Hague to present A Country of Missing People: Securing Justice and Truth for Families of the Missing in Ukraine, a newly-published book which describes in detail the scale of the missing persons challenge facing Ukraine, and the steps that can be taken to meet this challenge.
“The authorities are endeavoring to establish an effective missing persons process even as the country fights a war for its very survival,” Ambassador Vollebaek said. “This is not a contradiction. The authorities fully understand the legal, social and political consequences of a situation in which tens of thousands of their citizens have disappeared. They understand that when these disappearances are the result of war crimes – where prisoners of war or civilians have been abducted or killed – evidence gathered to locate and identify the missing must meet international judicial standards so that in due course it can be used to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.”
ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger noted that the A Country of Missing People describes the technical, legislative and institutional elements that have been applied successfully in missing persons programs elsewhere in the world and explains how some of these could be applied in Ukraine. “The book shows how establishing efficient coordination among multiple agencies that have a role in accounting for the missing is a challenging but necessary task,” Ms Bomberger said. “It also examines how the work of family associations and CSOs can be supported and made more effective, and it shows in detail how an effective missing persons strategy can secure truth and justice for large numbers of families.”
Anatolii Solovei, Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Ukraine in the Netherlands said that addressing the issue of missing persons is fundamental to Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and its territorial integrity. “Tens of thousands are missing because of the invasion. These people must be accounted for and those responsible for their disappearance must be brought to justice.”
Mr Solovei said progress is being made in integrating ICMP’s Ukraine Program in the work of domestic agencies, noting that earlier this week, ICMP, the Lviv Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination, and the Danylo Halytskyi National Medical University signed a Memorandum of Understanding under which training in DNA-led human identification will be provided. And at the end of August, ICMP and the National Police of Ukraine signed a Protocol that will enable the Main Investigative Department of the NPU to use ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System to process data. “ICMP has helped the Ukrainian authorities to make identifications in a number of cases and this can be significantly expanded as the ICMP program is rolled out,” Mr Solovei said, noting that an ICMP initiative to collect information, including genetic information, from Ukrainian families of the missing living in neighboring countries has just been launched.
Kevin Sullivan, the author of A Country of Missing Persons, said that while the challenges facing Ukraine are formidable, there are areas where rapid progress can be made. “One of the things that became very clear when writing this book is that in Ukraine – unlike many of the other countries where ICMP operates – the digital infrastructure and digital culture – conducting daily transactions by mobile phone, for example – mean that citizens have a huge capacity to network and organize, and a program to collect data from families of the missing can be undertaken with the benefit of digitalization.”
Dr. Christophe Paulussen, Senior Researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Institute, said “Evidence gathering remains a huge task of course in an ongoing war. This is why ICMP’s Outreach Campaign to encourage families to report missing relatives, and a data collection campaign to facilitate DNA-based identifications and to support investigations, is so crucial.” He added “At this point, also because of the overwhelming number of cases, the focus of investigators and prosecutors is on criminal prosecution, so it’s important they also learn about the broader picture, this can also have legal consequences.”
Oleksandr Tomashchuk of the Ukrainians in the Netherlands Foundation expressed support for ICMP’s efforts to work with families and organizations in the Ukrainian diaspora. In terms of collecting data to locate and identify missing persons, he said positive outcomes could be achieved by “combining the knowledge and expertise of ICMP with the communication capabilities of community-oriented organizations, like the Ukrainians in the Netherlands Foundation” and he added that innovative approaches could be developed through cooperation with the relevant ministries in Ukraine.
ICMP’s Director of Policy and Cooperation Andreas Kleiser said that many of the recommendations that ICMP has made to the Ukrainian authorities since 2014 have already been incorporated in measures to address the issue of missing persons, including the Law on the Legal Status of Persons Gone Missing Under Special Circumstances. “Our role in Ukraine is to recommend ways of filling gaps in the existing framework and to provide practical assistance so that the authorities can do this. This has included legislative initiatives that have been developed and implemented in recent years.”
ICMP’s Ukraine Program is supported by the Government of Canada, the European Union Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), the German Federal Foreign Office, and the US State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).
ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the co-operation of governments and other authorities in locating persons missing as a result of conflicts, human rights abuses, disasters, organized violence and other causes and to assist them in doing so.
ICMP was one of the organizations that helped to identify victims of Flight MH17, shot down by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014. It has recommended legislative and institutional measures to enhance Ukraine’s capacity to account for missing persons. Many of these recommendations had already been implemented before the 2022 Russian invasion. In April 2022, the authorities in Ukraine requested urgent ICMP assistance. ICMP deployed staff in the Spring of 2022, opened an office in Kyiv in July, and launched a comprehensive program to help the Ukrainian institutions account for those who are missing as a result of the Russian invasion.