By: Saša Kulukčija
Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 5 June 2020: The painstaking process of identifying victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide was the focus of a visit today by EU Special Representative Ambassador Johann Sattler, Head of the European Union Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to see the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
At the Podrinje Identification Project facility, Ambassador Sattler, who was accompanied by the Head of ICMP’s Western Balkans Program, Matthew Holiday, observed work by ICMP staff to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina in identifying human remains from the genocide. Using DNA-based identification methods, ICMP has assisted in the identification of 7,000 of the more than 8,000 persons who were missing following the genocide. The work continues to find new mass and clandestine graves related to Srebrenica.
“With the EU’s financial and political support, ICMP will continue to help the BIH authorities to fulfill their obligations to the families of the missing to locate and identify persons missing as a result of the conflicts of the 1990s,” Mr Holliday said. “EU funds have enabled ICMP to help BIH authorities account for more missing persons than anywhere else in the world. Still, thousands remain missing and efforts to account for them must continue.”
Ambassador Sattler commended the ICMP staff for their work: “The effort of the ICMP to resolve the fates of thousands of persons missing from the conflicts provides needed closure to the families of the victims.”
After mass killings which followed the fall of the Srebrenica and Zepa UN Safe Areas in July 1995, the perpetrators moved bodies between graves with heavy machinery in an effort to conceal evidence. This made it almost impossible to identify the vast majority of victims using visual and other identification methods available at the time.
ICMP introduced the use of a relatively new technology, DNA, to identify the genocide victims. This use – the first in a conflict-context with large numbers of missing people – required pioneering the application of a DNA-based process of identifications and the creation of a high throughput DNA laboratory processing capability. The technology was used successfully not only on Srebrenica cases, but on cases from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as a whole.
So far, ICMP has collected data from 100,000 families of the missing and over 50,000 post mortem samples from government authorities in the region. Genetic profiles obtained from these samples have been matched in a scientifically reliable, blinded process, and resulting in tens of thousands of victims being identified.
ICMP scientific data, including DNA records, concerning persons missing from the Srebrenica genocide and in other areas of the region have been admitted as evidence at trials before the ICTY and courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 30 criminal trials. The evidence has been cross-examined in detail numerous times and consistently upheld, demonstrating the importance of addressing the issue of missing persons in line with the rule of law.
In BIH and elsewhere, ICMP works closely with families of the missing to ensure that they are involved in the search and identification process and that the process is transparent. Families also played an essential role in lobbying for the adoption of the BIH Law on Missing Persons, which was enacted in 2004 as the first of its kind in the world. BIH’s Missing Persons Institute, established in 2005 with ICMP support, provides for a sustainable domestic mechanism to locate missing persons regardless of their ethnic, religious or national affiliation, or their role in past hostilities.
ICMP has worked with the all countries in the former Yugoslavia to support their efforts to locate and identify missing persons from the conflicts of the 1990s, and to secure their families’ rights to justice, truth and reparations. More than 70 percent of the 40,000 persons missing, from all national, ethnic and religious groups have been accounted for with ICMP’s assistance.
ICMP’s Western Balkans Program continues to provide support to BIH in terms of forensic archaeology and anthropology at excavations and access to ICMP’s DNA testing and matching for the purpose of human identification of missing persons.
ICMP is a treaty-based international organization that seeks to ensure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, migration, and other causes, and to assist them in doing so. As the only international organization that is exclusively tasked to address the issue of missing persons, ICMP is actively engaged in working with governments, civil society organizations, justice institutions, international organizations, and others to develop purpose-specific institutions and legislation, to foster the growth and influence of civil society groups and families of the missing, and to provide cutting-edge technical expertise and tools, such as DNA and advanced data systems technologies to locate and identify the missing. ICMP works to secure the rights of all families of the missing to justice, truth and reparations. ICMP also supports the work of other organizations in their efforts, encourages public involvement in its activities and contributes to the development of appropriate expressions of commemoration and tribute to the missing.