On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, escalating an armed conflict that began in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists took control of eastern parts of the country. In early April 2022, mass graves were discovered in Bucha and other areas around Kyiv and there are reports of similar atrocities across Ukraine. Thousands of civilians have died, many of whom have not been identified. More than 4.5 million Ukrainians are refugees; many have been separated from their families, or are related to persons who are missing in Ukraine as a result of the conflict. In addition to Ukrainians, non-Ukrainians, including journalists, foreign combatants and Russian Federation soldiers, are missing.
In April 2022 the authorities in Ukraine requested urgent assistance from ICMP. ICMP immediately deployed personnel to Kyiv to begin preparations for a program based on an exchange of diplomatic notes, supplementing a Memorandum of Understanding between ICMP and the Ukrainian authorities signed in July 2021.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General is working to ensure that ICMP has the cooperation of the relevant agencies and government departments so that it can provide substantive assistance in the process of excavating sites of forensic interest, identifying missing persons, and supporting families of the missing.
Accounting for missing and disappeared persons as a result of human rights violations caused by the conflict is an investment in peace, stability and in reinstating the rule of law. Violations perpetrated in Ukraine will engage international and domestic courts, as well as other justice mechanisms. The effectiveness of such efforts will depend on the evidence that is made available, including evidence of enforced disappearances as defined by the Rome Statute.
ICMP’s Ukraine Program
ICMP’s Ukraine Program is being developed in response to requests from the Ukrainian authorities. On 5 April 2022 in a letter from the Prosecutor General to Ukraine’s Minister of Border Affairs, the Prosecutor General confirmed that ICMP’s program can be implemented within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding between the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and Ukraine’s Commission on Missing Persons, signed in Kyiv on 22 July 2021. In mid-April 2022, ICMP and the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine exchanged diplomatic notes to the same effect, also strengthening provisions for ICMP’s direct operational engagement on the ground. These measures enable ICMP to assist the Ukrainian authorities in finding missing persons, regardless of nationality, religion, role of the missing person during the conflict, or any other factor.
Through its Ukraine Program, ICMP will:
- Engage Families, NGOs, and the authorities in learning & development programs on data reporting and data collection efforts;
- Conduct largescale media outreach to encourage families to report missing persons using ICMP’s Online Inquiry Center (OIC) and conduct a largescale effort to collect data directly from families of the missing, including genetic reference samples;
- Ensure coordination and cooperation with domestic institutions, civil society and with relevant international organizations and the diplomatic community;
- Provide technical and material support to enable Ukrainian authorities to conduct investigations into missing persons cases, conduct mortuary-based analyses that supports identification and evidence-gathering efforts and to reunify separated families; and
- Under an existing cooperation agreement with the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, ICMP will endeavor to ensure Ukraine’s efforts to account for the missing align with the investigative strategies of the ICC, as well as domestic processes.
In May 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting widespread human rights violations in Eastern Ukraine. In July 2014, the Ukrainian authorities excavated a mass grave in the town of Sloviansk. Also in July 2014 a Malaysian airliner departing from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport was shot down over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. All 298 passengers and crew were killed and the international effort to collect and identify the bodies and arrange for burial were obstructed by armed men on the ground. At the invitation of the Ukrainian Government and under the terms of its standing agreement with INTERPOL to provide assistance in case of disasters, ICMP deployed with INTERPOL at the crash site to assist in recovering victims’ remains that were subsequently transported to The Netherlands.
In September 2014, at the invitation of the Prosecutor General, ICMP conducted a fact-finding mission to Kyiv, following which ICMP recommended that the authorities, establish a central entity to coordinate missing persons investigations, create a mechanism for collecting and processing data on missing persons, build the capacities of civil society, in particular the families of the missing so that they are able to exercise their rights, and build the capacities of public institutions including in the forensic field. Ukraine subsequently adopted a number of measures in line with these recommendations, most importantly through the adoption of the Law on the Legal Status of Missing Persons on 2 August 2018, and subsequently through decrees concerning the establishment of a Central Register for Missing Persons.
In 2021, at the invitation of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, ICMP again visited Kyiv to conclude an MoU on ICMP support in a range of practical measures including capacity building for the Commission on Missing Persons, improving DNA-based human identification processes, establishing a State Register of Missing Persons, as outlined in the 2018 law, and building consensus between civil society and the institutions of the State.