Transparent and proactive effort to account for the missing

Town Hall Meeting in Sarajevo

Representatives of associations of families of missing persons, the BiH Missing Persons Institute, the BiH Prosecutor’s Office, and the BiH Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees came together in a series of Town Hall meetings held throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina in February to discuss steps that must be taken in order to sustain the search for missing persons.

The meetings, organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Tuzla (3 February), Brcko (4 February), Sarajevo (10 February), Mostar (12 February) and Banja Luka (17 February), focused on the recommendations contained in BiH, Missing Persons from the Armed Conflicts of the 1990s: A Stocktaking, published by ICMP in December 2014 The book-length Stocktaking Report brings together for the first time all of the relevant information on two decades of efforts to account for the missing. It examines specific issues in Lower Podrinje, Upper Podrinje, Herzegovina, Sarajevo, Posavina, Central Bosnia, Northeast Bosnia and Western Bosnia.

The recommendations presented in the Stocktaking Report include the following:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina must sustain the effort to account for the remaining 8,000 persons missing from the conflict by ensuring that its institutions, including the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) and the BIH Prosecutor’s Office remain strong and engaged;
  • BIH must fully implement the Law on Missing Persons, which provides for the Central Records on Missing Persons (CEN), as well as for a Fund benefiting the families of the missing;
  • BIH should explore new approaches to locating gravesites, including aerial and satellite imagery;
  • The current effort to reassess past identification processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mortuaries in a systematic way should be continued as a priority; and
  • Associations of family members of missing persons should continue their lobbying efforts to claim their rights to truth and justice. In particular they should continue to convene annual Regional Conferences to advocate for their rights and to ensure that progress is sustained in the future.

At the Sarajevo meeting, Ema Cekic, president of the Association of Families of Missing Persons in Vogosca, called for greater cooperation among stakeholders. “Cooperation among the associations of families of the missing should also be improved,” she said. “A positive step can be made by the MPI advisory board: the MPI needs to include representatives of family associations more actively in its work. This would provide an opportunity for family associations to exchange and update information. Currently, ICMP is the only institution that is providing family associations with an opportunity to do this.”

“We find and we feel that the issue of missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been addressed by ICMP without any kind of discrimination,” Smilja Mitrovic of the Association of Missing Persons of Semberija and Majevica regions and the RS Union of Associations of Missing Persons said at the conclusion of the meeting in Brcko, adding that “the presentation of the Stocktaking Report reflects this.”

Safija Hrinić, president of the Prozor Association of Families of Missing Persons, said at the Mostar meeting that the MPI should be strengthened so that “investigators will be more efficient and families will be more satisfied.”

The MPI is delivering results, Sanja Mulać of the MPI said at the Mostar meeting. “A majority of persons that were registered as missing in Herzegovina at the end of the conflict have been found and identified and we remain committed and we are continuing to work on this process.”

Among other things, Ms Mulać noted that the review of postmortem remains in the Sutina Mortuary in southwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina has produced “extraordinary results”. This was a reference to an ongoing review of all 11 mortuaries in the country to help ICMP understand why almost 3,000 bone samples received from local authorities do not match over 8,000 complete sets of reference samples provided voluntarily to ICMP by family members with missing relatives. It is not yet clear why such a large number of bone samples do not match the available complete sets of reference samples. It may be that the bone samples received are from an earlier conflict, or it may be that mis-identifications occurred in the more than 8,000 cases that were closed prior to the use of DNA.

The review process undertaken by the NN (unidentified) Working Group began in 2014, following the engagement of the Prosecutor’s Office. To date, three mortuaries have been reviewed. These are Sutina, Nevesinje and Gorazde.   As a consequence of these efforts new identifications have been made

The inspection teams, currently working at the mortuaries in Visoko and the Commemorative Center Tuzla are making good progress, and are scheduled to complete a review of all the mortuaries in the country by the middle of 2016.

Participants at the Banja Luka meeting called on the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina to engage more actively in the process of accounting for missing persons. “The state of BIH is still not showing sufficient effort in providing a solution for this joint problem,” said Milutin Misic, a member of the MPI collegium of directors. “There must be state accountability. One of the obstacles in the process of search and identification is a lack of information – the problem lies in the fact that those who are obliged to give information are not providing it, even though they are legally obliged to do so.”

Isidora Graorac of the Republican Organization of Fallen Families of Soldiers and Missing Persons said after the Banja Luka meeting that the process of accounting for missing persons “needs to be more transparent”, adding that “all stakeholders must be more proactive and ready to accept criticism in order to use this for potential improvement of work.”

Nedeljko Mitrovic, Chairperson of the Republican Organization of Fallen Families of Soldiers and Missing Persons stated that “ICMP’s Stocktaking Report is an important document and should become a part of the archive on how the issue of missing persons has been addressed in this country.”

Speaking at the meeting in Brcko, Matthew Holliday, the head of ICMP’s Western Balkans program, noted that “the institutional infrastructure – the BiH Law on Missing Persons and the MPI – is in place,” and he added that ICMP is confident “that the institutions are now in a position to use their expertise and authority to help the families of missing persons.”

In March ICMP will organize Roundtable seminars in Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo to develop the ideas and initiatives that have emerged from the Town Hall meetings.

The BIH Stocktaking Report can be accessed at http://bit.ly/1BQLL6l