Sustaining the Effort to Account For Missing Persons in Croatia and the Region

The Hague, 21 March 2017: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo must take coordinated action to resolve cases of unidentified human remains from the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and systematically address the issue of mis-identifications that occurred prior to the use of DNA testing, Matthew Holliday, the Head of ICMP’s Western Balkans program said in Brussels today.

Mr. Holliday was speaking at a conference held at the European Parliament to review efforts to account for missing persons from the conflict in Croatia.

More than 6,000 persons went missing during the conflict in Croatia (1991-1995), of whom around 2,000 are still missing. ICMP has helped to identify more than 600 complex missing persons cases from the Croatia conflict through a joint project with the Croatian Directorate of Detained and Missing. An estimated 12,000 persons are still missing in the Western Balkans as a whole.

“ICMP’s role in accounting for the missing from the conflict in Croatia has been to ensure an impartial, non-discriminatory process so that missing persons are searched for and identified regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or religion and regardless of the victim’s role, either as a combatant or a civilian, or allegiance,” Mr. Holliday said. “ICMP has encouraged the Croatian authorities to use modern forensic methods, including DNA testing and data systems, as the optimal way of identifying the missing and protecting the rights of surviving families.”

Although more than two-thirds of the missing from the conflict in Croatia have been accounted for, the majority have been identified using traditional methods of presumptive identification, which, increases the risk of error, Mr. Holliday said. “Where identifications are carried out using traditional methods, misidentifications may take place, despite the authorities’ best efforts.

In Croatia there are around 900 cases of unidentified mortal remains in mortuaries. Croatia is not alone in the region: Bosnia and Herzegovina has as many as 3,000 cases, Kosovo around 400 cases of unidentified mortal remains, and Serbia a similar number.

“Addressing the issue of unidentified remains and the correlated issue of possible misidentifications is critically important if the process of accounting for the missing from the conflict in Croatia is to continue moving forward,” Mr. Holliday said.

He recommended a systemic approach. “A first step would be to disaggregate identifications according to those made on the basis of DNA analysis and those using traditional methods of presumptive identification. A second step would be to review documentation related to cases closed using traditional methods of identification. A third step would involve a thoroughgoing review – including forensic examination – of unidentified remains at the Mirogoj Memorial Ossuary and the Osijek Ossuary to determine the number of unidentified cases and ensure that post-mortem samples have been taken to enable DNA testing to be conducted. A fourth step would be to collect additional DNA reference samples from family members of the missing in case of doubt about the results of identifications made using traditional methods of identification.”

ICMP remains a committed partner of the Croatian authorities, and other governments in the region, and – with the financial support of the international community – will continue to help them address the issue of persons missing as a result of the conflicts of the 1990s, which is essential for peace and reconciliation in the Balkans.

ICMP is an international organization based in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating and identifying missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, irregular migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so. It is the only international organization tasked exclusively to work on the issue of missing persons.

The full text of Mr. Holliday’s speech at the European Parliament can be accessed at: http://bit.ly/2nG8QHD