Regional Coordination of Families of the Missing from the Former Yugoslavia (RCC) and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) hosted a two day conference in Sarajevo, BIH, on 14 and 15 June to mark ICMP’s 20 year anniversary. The participants included representatives from the Regional Coordination of Families of the Missing from the Former Yugoslavia, members of Family Associations from the region, the EU Special Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, representatives from the Prosecutor’s Office, the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, presidents and chairpersons of Government Commissions on Missing persons from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, representatives of NGOs and other individuals involved in the process of transitional justice and the issue of missing persons, and ICMP Director General and the Head of ICMP’s Western Balkans Program. The conference included panel and roundtable discussions and Questions and Answers sessions which provided a fora for participants, especially representatives from the RCC and Family Associations of the missing from BIH, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo, to express their concerns and comments regarding the process of accounting for the missing from the conflicts of the 1990s. Most prominent topics of discussion included the issues of depoliticizing the issue of missing persons and enforced disappearances; memorialization, and reparations.
At the opening session of the conference, senior political representatives from BIH, Croatia, and Serbia, as well as President of the Regional Coordination Steering Board, Ms. Olgica Bozanic, and member of the Steering Board of the RC, Ms. Semina Aleksic, highlighted the importance of sustained commitment by the authorities to maintain the effort to account for the missing. EU Special Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lars Wigemark, stressed that the effort to account for the missing “is about justice and the rule of law”. He called on the BIH Council of Ministers to amend the BIH Missing Persons co-founders agreement in order to improve the management of the MPI and also called on the authorities to make sure that the MPI has the resources that it needs in order to do its job. Ambassador Wigemark applauded the work of the ICMP in the former Yugoslavia but claimed that further progress still needs to be made and that it is up to the state of BIH to take ownership of the process. Ambassador expressed his support for the verification of the Central Records of Missing Persons, which, he said, will enhance the possibility of making new identifications.
US Ambassador Maureen Cormack commended the “historic significance” of ICMP’s work noting that in addition to leading the effort to identify the missing, it has “assembled a crucial body of evidence against those responsible for atrocities, an unbiased historical accounting by which future generations will know the truth of what happened here.”
At the closing session of the first day, ICMP Director General, Kathryne Bomberger, noted that with more than 28,000 of the 40,000 persons who were missing at the end of the war accounted for, the countries of the Western Balkans have established a new and successful model for addressing the issue of missing persons.
Depoliticizing the issue of missing persons across the Western Balkans was stressed by multiple speakers during the conference. Many participants criticized the continued manipulation of families of the missing for political gains by regional politicians. Economic analyst, Svetlana Cenic, stressed her anguish on how the focus on the missing is only brought up at times of elections, when there is need for political manipulations, but is notably absent other times of the year. Other speakers during the panel held on the second day also addressed how many initiatives that are meant to speed along the process have been put aside due to political reasons, particularly in BIH.
Another prevailing topic was the complex issue of memorialization. The matter of memorialization also ties in with the importance of equal treatment among all victims and families of the missing. Marko Jursic, Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Missing Persons Institute of BIH called for unity among all victims, suggesting that instead of being memorialized with various religious and national markings, memorials should instead have the same universal elements applicable to all sides. Further stressed was that victims should be viewed as “our victims”, calling for a collective and unifying approach to a delicate topic. The polarization of this issue further hinders regional cooperation. Multiple participants stressed how it is simply important enough that these memorials exist in the first place, regardless of their religious or nationalist markings. It was a shared idea that if these memorials were not there, than those who went missing would be forgotten.
The obstacles of reparations was another topic many participants expressed their grievances over. Ramiz Ahmetovic, from the Association of Missing Bosniaks of Brcko District suggested for an increase of the average salary of reparations given to families because memorialization alone does not help the families survive. Panelists also called on the state to fulfill their obligations and allocate the appropriate resources to not only continue resolving the issue of missing persons but also to provide substantial assistance to the families of the missing. Representatives from a number of Associations of Families of Missing Persons stressed the difficulty they face in receiving reparations, claiming if that is what they are entitled to than that is what they would like to receive.
The conference provided an opportunity for a productive discussion between the participants. Some of the decisive conclusions reached following this two day regional meeting are presented below:
- The process of accounting for the missing must be depoliticized, and the manipulation of families of the missing for political gain must cease.
- All victims and families of the missing must enjoy equal treatment.
- The number 1 priority of the families of the missing is the search for and identification of their missing relatives.
- The authorities must accelerate the process of locating and excavating gravesites. In that regard, adequate resources must be allocated for the task, and the full and timely engagement of Prosecutors’ Offices is essential.
- The authorities in BIH must assume full ownership of the process of accounting for the missing.
- Families of the missing want justice. Law enforcement agencies, investigatory bodies and Prosecutors’ Offices should make a sustained commitment to bringing perpetrators to justice.
- Regional cooperation should be strengthened among states of the Western Balkans. In that regard, Serbia and Croatia, as well as BIH, Montenegro and Kosovo should fully participate in the establishment of a Western Balkan database of open missing persons cases.
- The discriminatory system of benefits for veterans vis-à-vis civilian war victims must be corrected. Western Balkans countries should revise the existing legislation or adopt new legislation to ensure families of the missing have access to social and economic benefits on an equal footing with veterans. In BIH the Law on the Missing Persons should be fully implemented, that is, the Fund for the Families should be established.
- The issue of NN cases of human remains across the Western Balkans is critical. In BIH there are more than 3,000 NN cases. In Croatia there are more than 900 such cases. In Kosovo there are more than 400 NN cases. A region-wide approach should be developed to assist in identifying NN cases. The framework plan on the collection of the additional reference samples from family members who previously identified their missing relatives without the use of DNA, which was recently adopted by the BIH Missing Persons Institute, provides a measured course of action that can address the issue of NN cases and possible misidentifications.
- Memorials and commemorations should not offend but contribute to reconciliation. They should contribute to remembering the missing in a positive way, and not focus on past grievances.