The Search for the Missing Must Continue

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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, ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said today.

“The achievement in the Western Balkans has been remarkable,” Ms Bomberger said. “Few would have believed at the end of the war that so many of the missing could be located and identified. Because of this effort, tens of thousands of families have been able to end the agony of uncertainty and to assert their rights for truth and justice. But it should not be forgotten that 12,000 people have not yet been found, and work must continue at the present rate to account for those who are still missing.”

Ms Bomberger was speaking at the conclusion of the morning session on the first day of a two-day conference jointly organized by ICMP and the Regional Coordination of Associations of Families of the Missing. ICMP has supported the Regional Coordination since it was established in 2012. It participated in this week’s conference as part of a series of activities to mark ICMP’s 20th anniversary.

At the opening session of the conference, senior political representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, as well President of the Regional Coordination (RC) Steering Board Olgica Bozanic, and member of the Steering Board of the Regional Coordination Semina Alekic, highlighted the importance of sustained commitment by the authorities to maintain the effort to account for the missing.

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.” She described ICMP as “a key partner in efforts to build institutions to ensure justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina and throughout the region.”

EU Special Representative and Head of the EU Delegation 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 he 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 expressed support for the verification of the Central Records of Missing Persons, which, he said, will enhance the possibility of making new identifications.

President of the Regional Coordination Steering Board Olgica Bozanic pointed out that 20 years ago associations of families of the missing from different communities got together “and started the fight for justice”. In 2011 they formally established the Regional Coordination, bringing together associations of families of the missing from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia. She said the opening of all archives in former Yugoslavia was likely “to reveal new information about mass graves, including their location.” Countries “cannot move forward until the key issue of responsibility is resolved,” she said. “You can build peace only on a foundation of justice.”

Semina Alekic, a member of the steering board of the Regional Coordination, said that the fact that ICMP is marking 20 years of its work “is the best indicator that the agony of families has been going on for even longer. “The majority of families have been living in ambiguity and pain for the last 25 years,” she said. Expressing gratitude for ICMP’s contribution to the effort to account for the missing, she said that families “are sad that 21 years after the end of the conflict we are still searching.” She concluded that “our message from this place would be that the only guarantee that crimes will never happen again is to face the past to speed up resolving the issue of missing persons, to speed up processing war crimes suspects, and to ensure adequate justice.”

ICMP was established in June 1996 at the initiative of US President Bill Clinton to spearhead the effort to account for the missing from the former Yugoslavia. It’s mandate was subsequently expanded to work in countries throughout the world and address a broader range of missing persons issues including those arising from natural disasters and forced migration. In December 2014, following the signing of an ICMP Treaty by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg, ICMP became a fully-fledged International Organization in its own right. In 2015 it moved its headquarters from Sarajevo to The Hague. It maintains an extensive laboratory system in Bosnia and Herzegovina and an ongoing Western Balkans program.

ICMP works with governments, civil society organizations, justice institutions, international organizations and others to address the issue of people who have gone missing as a result of armed conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime and other causes. As the only International Organization that is exclusively dedicated to this issue, ICMP is actively engaged in developing institutions and civil society capacity, promoting legislation, fostering social and political advocacy, and developing and providing technical expertise to locate and identify the missing.