Sustaining the Process of Accounting for Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina

At the end of June, ICMP arranged media briefings in Banja Luka and Sarajevo to explain the latest developments in implementing recommendations from the Stocktaking Report published by ICMP in December last year. The Report is the most comprehensive analysis yet written of a country’s effort to account for missing persons after armed conflict.

It reviews

  • Wartime efforts to account for the missing, including the work of the various commissions established to exchange prisoners and remains of the deceased;
  • Post-war efforts to identify bodies, using traditional methods;
  • The domestic legal and institutional framework, including the enactment of the BiH Law on Missing Persons in October 2004 and the establishment of the BiH Missing Persons Institute (MPI) in August 2005; and
  • The scientific process, which witnessed an exponential rise in identifications after 2001 with the introduction of ICMP’s DNA-led Identification Data Management System.

The Report provides detailed information on the location and identification of the missing in nine geographical regions – Bosnian Krajina, Lower Podrinje, Upper Podrinje, Herzegovina, the Sarajevo Region, Posavina, Central Bosnia, Northeastern Bosnia, and Western Bosnia.

Approximately 70 percent of persons reported missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a consequence of the war have been accounted for. No other post-conflict country has achieved such a high rate of resolving cases of missing persons.

To date, as many as 23,000 missing persons out of an estimated 31,500 reported missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been identified. Up to 8,000 individuals are still unaccounted for – and this means that the work of accounting for the missing is far from over.

The Stocktaking Report concluded with a series of detailed recommendations based on the findings of the Report itself. ICMP organized Town Hall meetings and Roundtables in the first quarter of 2015 in Banja Luka, Brcko, Mostar, Zenica, Tuzla and Sarajevo to consider these recommendations. The meetings brought together members of the public as well as representatives of family associations, MPI, the BiH Prosecutor’s Office, academic and technical experts and representatives from the relevant ministries. Discussion focused on ways of implementing the recommendations. This extensive and inclusive public discussion further refined the recommendations to a set of key proposals that were presented to BiH lawmakers at the end of May.

These key recommendations are as follows:

  1. Provide unequivocal support for BiH institutions that are tasked with supporting families of the missing and sustaining the effort to find the 8,000 BiH citizens who are still unaccounted for. This means supporting MPI, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the courts (MPI’s budget has been reduced from 6.5 million KM in 2008 to just over 3 million KM in 2014. MPI field offices are currently in a position where they have no phones, no fuel for transport and no funds to complete the work that they must undertake.)
  2. Fully implement the Law on Missing Persons, which means finalizing the process of verifying the Central Records of the Missing (only around half of the almost 35,000 names listed have gone through the verification process) and establishing the Fund for Support for Families of the Missing.
  3. Ensure BiH participation in the establishment of the Regional List of Missing Persons, in accordance with ICMP’s Declaration on the Role of the State in Addressing the Issue of Persons Missing as a Consequence of Armed Conflict and Human Rights Abuses, signed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro in Mostar on 29 August 2014.
  4. Undertake all measures to help the NN Working Group resolve cases of almost 3,000 persons whose remains are stored in mortuaries but have not yet been identified.
  5. Support the establishment of the Federation Institute for Legal Medicine.
  6. Endorse universal commemoration of the missing by supporting the initiative of family associations to have the BiH authorities mark 30 August as International Day of the Disappeared.

These are well defined and realistic priorities that can sustain the search for the missing, assist families, and help the country to move forward. And they correspond to the views of a majority of BiH citizens. A survey conducted on behalf of ICMP and published in the Stocktaking Report found that:

  • 87 percent of citizens believe that joint memorials and days of commemoration should be dedicated to all missing persons;
  • 80 percent believe that resolving the fate of the missing contributes to reconciliation; and
  • 96 percent believe the search for the missing should not be conducted on the basis of nationality or religion.

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Key points highlighted during the Town Hall meetings and Roundtables include the following:

  • If criminals walk free they will not be obliged to provide whatever information they may possess regarding the fate of those who are still missing.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot move forward until the issue of those who are still missing is substantially resolved. Those who committed crimes must be held to account. Those who have suffered anguish for more than 20 years because of those crimes must know that the guilty did not go unpunished.
  • Prosecuting criminals and searching for their victims is not something that affects just families of the missing: it affects everyone. If criminals walk free, citizens cannot rely on the protection of the law.
  • The role of the authorities in sustaining the search for the missing is mandatory not optional. Families of the missing are not asking for favors: they are asking for what is theirs by right.
  • Analysis of the Central Records on Missing Persons shows no significant difference in the identification rate of individuals reported by FBIH (74.83 percent) and the RS (72.18 percent).
  • Cases in the ICMP database are only marked with a bar code, so nobody can see who a victim is until the DNA match has been finalized. Bones do not and cannot discriminate. Victims are victims and the entire system of accounting for the missing is based on accounting for all the missing, not one group or another.
  • There is discrimination but it is discrimination on the basis of gender not on the basis of Constituent Peoples. The majority of those missing from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina were male, leaving women and children to struggle to assert their rights.

The full text of the BiH Stocktaking Report, with its conclusions and recommendations, can be accessed here ( http://bit.ly/1ySs24E)