ICMP to Identify Tsunami Victims

24 May 2005: The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) finalized agreements today with authorities in Thailand on the identification of victims of the December 2004 South East Asian tsunami. ICMP is already analyzing bone samples sent to its headquarters in Sarajevo to obtain DNA profiles; today’s agreement means ICMP will also match the bone DNA profiles with DNA profiles of the missing.ICMP’s specialized DNA STR (short tandem repeat) Matching Software, which will be used in the identification of tsunami victims, was developed initially to assist in the identification of thousands of persons missing as a result of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

Short tandem repeat DNA analysis is the most accurate method for identification of missing persons. Each person inherits a set of short tandem repeats, or DNA patterns, from their parents, with one copy coming from their mother and their other from the father.

Three weeks ago, ICMP agreed with the Government of Thailand to assist in the identification efforts by analyzing an initial 750 bone samples in order to obtain DNA profiles. ICMP experts are able to extract DNA profiles from bone samples, even if they are highly deteriorated, because of the extensive experience they have had and techniques they have developed working in the former Yugoslavia.

ICMP will deploy staff to Phuket, Thailand, to establish and maintain a database of DNA profiles of the missing. The bone sample DNA profiles obtained by ICMP will then be compared with DNA profiles of the missing persons, which were collected by the Thai authorities and by the authorities of the countries whose citizens were lost in Thailand during the tsunami.

ICMP’s DNA Matching Software was used to assist in the identification of victims of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. ICMP also recently began to work with the authorities in Iraq in addressing the missing persons issue in that country.

Although ICMP’s mandate is to help to identify victims of conflicts and human rights abuses, the organization has undertaken tsunami victim identification as a humanitarian measure. “We are pleased that we will be able to help in this humanitarian effort,” said Andreas Kleiser, ICMP Deputy Chief of Staff, when today’s agreement was signed, “We understand how important it is for family members to know what happened to their loved ones and, if possible, to be able to bury their bodies.” Kleiser added that the ICMP, which is funded by 14 donor governments, would be happy to assist in the identification of tsunami victims from other countries as well.