Searching for the Missing is a Responsibility of Governments

Town Hall Meeting in Sarajevo

During the month of March, ICMP organized roundtables in Tuzla, Mostar, and Sarajevo to discuss ways of implementing recommendations in the BiH Stocktaking Report. The report, published by ICMP in December, describes two decades of efforts to account for the missing and examines specific issues affecting communities in every part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The roundtables brought together representatives of family associations and the authorities as well as academic and legal experts.

Key recommendations in the Stocktaking Report include:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina must remain vigilant in accounting for the remaining 8,000 persons missing from the conflict by ensuring that its institutions, including the Missing Persons Institute and the BIH Prosecutor’s Office remain strong and engaged;
  • Bosnia 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;
  • Bosnia should explore new approaches to locating gravesites, including aerial and satellite imagery;
  • The ongoing effort of systematically reassessing past processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mortuaries should be continued as a priority;
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina must strengthen its domestic capacity in terms of forensic expertise; among other things, an Institute of Legal Medicine should be established in the FBIH, and the capacities of the RS Institute of Forensic Medicine should be strengthened;
  • Obstruction needs to end in regard to concluding bilateral agreements between Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries in the region, and in regard to the establishment of a Regional List of Missing Persons that would eliminate duplicate records and jurisdictional impediments to progress on the issue;
  • 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.

Participants at the Tuzla meeting stressed the central importance of the rule of law in any post-conflict strategy to deal with missing persons. They noted that prosecuting war criminals and searching for their victims is not something that affects just families of the missing: it affects everyone, because if criminals walk free, citizens cannot rely on the protection of the law, and – in practical terms – if criminals walk free they will not be obliged to give up whatever information they may possess regarding the fate of those who are still missing.

“Everything possible must be done (all the more urgent as we complete the second decade since the end of the war) to establish the facts about what happened during the conflict and identify those who committed crimes. This is key to moving forward,” said Alma Dzaferovic, Head of the War Crimes Department in Tuzla Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office and a member of the BiH High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. “Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a country of war criminals: it’s a country where a certain number of citizens committed crimes – and it’s this group that must be brought to justice. When that happens, the rest of us can get on with our lives. The way to sustain the effort to account for the missing as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the end of the war is to uphold the rule of law. Those who committed crimes must be held to account. Those who have suffered anguish for more than 20 years because of those crimes must know that the guilty did not go unpunished.”

Dzaferovic pointed out that a recent survey found that more than 80 percent of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina believe that accounting for the missing contributes to post-war recovery and, in the long term, reconciliation, which indicates that a majority of citizens accept the premise that seeking the truth – rather than trying to gloss over the past – is the right way to move away from the legacy of war towards lasting peace.

The Mostar roundtable discussed, among other things, ways of ensuring full implementation of the BiH Law on Missing Persons, which was enacted at the end of 2004. The law provides for the establishment of the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) to coordinate the search for the missing. It also stipulates the creation of the Central Evidentiary List of the Missing (CEN), and the establishment of a Fund to ensure that families of the missing receive necessary financial support, and it prescribes procedures for memorials.

The MPI was launched in 2005 and became fully operational in 2008. The CEN was created in 2011, but only half of the more than 30,000 names listed have gone through a verification process, and the slow pace of verification has been one of the contributory factors to the authorities’ failure until now to establish the Fund for Support to Families of the Missing.

The Fund was seen as a practical way of helping families who are among the most vulnerable in society. In its absence, many families have been left to manage as best they can without even minimal support from the authorities.

“Not only have these families been traumatized by loss – in many cases by the loss of the principal breadwinner – they have been left to manage as best they can without even minimal support from the authorities,” said Saliha Djuderija, Deputy BiH Minister for Human Rights and Refugees. “The way in which families of the missing have been treated affects all of us,” she added. “They have been denied their rights. And when the rights of some citizens are denied, the rights of all citizens are affected.”

At the Sarajevo roundtable participants emphasized the mandatory role of the authorities in addressing the issue of missing persons.

The BiH Law on Missing Persons, and the Declaration signed by Western Balkans leaders in Mostar in August 2014 assert the fundamental obligation of the state to address the issue of missing persons, and to ensure that the rights of family members are upheld and that survivors and civil society have access to information and a proper investigation. Consequently, in Bosnia and Herzegovina officials at every level of government are obliged to cooperate – fully and effectively – in accounting for the missing, whatever their ethnicity, and whatever the circumstances of their disappearance.

Samina Alikic, Secretary of the Regional Coordination of Families of the Missing, stressed the importance of this underlying principle. “It should be made clear to everyone in authority that family members are not asking for favors,” she said. “They are asking for what is theirs by right. Officials at every level of government are obliged by law to cooperate.”

It was noted at the Sarajevo meeting that a key way of doing this is to consolidate, review and verify records of the missing.

“A consolidated and verified CEN would put an end to speculation about the number of missing persons and it would narrow the space for manipulation of numbers and the creation of competing narratives,” said Alikic, who also highlighted the central role of the MPI, the principal agency with specific responsibility for coordinating efforts to account for the missing. “It is imperative that the MPI receives the full support of the authorities and of all who are engaged in the search for the missing,” she said. “This support has been decreasing over the years. Supporting the MPI and speeding up the process of verifying the CEN will make a substantial contribution to the efforts of the BiH authorities to fulfil their legal obligations – and it will make a substantial contribution to helping the thousands of families in this country who still seek the truth about the fate of a loved one.”

A roundtable will be organized in Banja Luka later in April and the conclusions of all the roundtables, together with conclusions from the Town hall meetings on the same subject organized by ICMP in Mostar, Brcko, Banja Luka, Tuzla and Sarajevo in February, will be collated and presented to the authorities.