International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Fall 2017 Issue

Hague Happenings


ICMP: Bringing Some Closure to Families of Missing Persons

Iva Vukusic
By: Iva Vukusic, International Judicial Monitor Correspondent in The Hague

During conflict and in post conflict situations from Bosnia to Syria, Libya and beyond, thousands of families suffer the anguish of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. In armed conflict, or as victims of forced disappearances, people sometimes vanish without trace. Often for years on end, mothers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, and children of those missing endure nightmares, and face questions such as ‘where is my loved one?’, ‘are they alive?’, ‘if not – have they suffered before death?’, or ‘where are they buried?’. One need and desire eclipses all others in those circumstances – to find out what happened to that person, and to locate remains in order for them to be properly laid to rest, to provide closure for families in ways that are in accordance with cultural or religious traditions.

Countless families spoke of the need to have a focal point for loss and grieving – a sense that the person has been laid to rest, where one can go and visit them, pray, cry or just bring flowers. In one such situation, older women, mothers or wives of Srebrenica victims, spoke about their fears of dying before they had the opportunity to find, identify, and bury their dead. Many indeed have died waiting for their loved ones to be identified in the 20 years since the war in Bosnia ended. However, one organization has been instrumental in helping find those missing persons, providing some piece of mind, and bringing some closure and relief to those left behind – the ICMP.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was established in the aftermath of some of the most brutal mass violence in the former Yugoslavia, and in particular after crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina became widely known. The initiative to set it up was brought by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996 at the G-7 Summit in Lyon, France. The goal was to try to locate the estimated 40 000 individuals that were reported missing. This move was also a recognition of the growing demand by surviving families, stressing the right to know what happened.

In 1999, the ICMP introduced DNA identification and a matching process as the primary tool of establishing the identity of remains found in mass graves, as more traditional methods were inadequate and often proved to be incorrect in determining identity. The organization collected genetic material for DNA profiles of the victims’ surviving family members, obtained from blood or saliva samples, which were matched with profiles extracted form bones found in mass graves. With the development of technology and techniques, it was becoming possible to extract information from remains that, just a few years earlier, would have been unsuitable for identification. By now, it is possible to get DNA even from old remains, or those that were burned. All of that genetic information required efficient, secure and ethical ways to store and manage it. Therefore, the ICMP developed databases and software enabling DNA matching to be made with a level of certainty that was previously unattainable.

The ICMP headquarters were, until recently, located in Sarajevo, where it grew to a formidable organization that helped locate and identify thousands of people, build local capacity of institutions to do that independently; developed science, technology and procedures as they relate to human remains, DNA analysis, and identification. Furthermore, and possibly of particular interest to lawyers, they have been instrumental in building cases in courts and tribunals against those responsible for the massacres. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and at the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, ICMP experts testified about the victims, who they were and what they had suffered. More recently, their expertise was used in the case of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who was convicted on November 22, 2017 at the ICTY, to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity.

In 2016, the ICMP moved its seat to The Hague, where it recently opened impressive state-of-the-art laboratories. The organization still operates in Bosnia, and will continue to do so, but as its focus moves to other locations, there was a need to relocate. ICMP employees using the modern technology in those labs helped identify 19 000 persons through DNA extraction and matching. In Bosnia, almost 75% of those missing were identified, which is an incredibly high number and an unprecedented achievement for those who made it


possible. Almost 90% of the victims of the genocide after the fall of Srebrenica have been identified. However, the process in the former Yugoslavia is not over.

As many as 7 000 people are still unaccounted for in Bosnia (for the entire region it is about 12 000 people), and there is work to be done there, to try to locate, and identify as many people as possible, and provide some closure to those left behind. Not knowing leaves families in a horrible limbo. The European Union has recently allocated funds to assist that process, and made possible the development of an application on the ICMP website that aims to assist people in reporting grave sites. The reporting of a site suspected to be a grave can be done anonymously.

The valuable expertise that the ICMP has developed, accumulated and shared, such as working on unearthing some three thousand mass graves, and the work they did in the aftermath of natural disasters are being used in dealing with current challenges: the missing in Iraq and Syria, as well as the identification of those who die trying to reach the shores of Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. Their work was instrumental in supporting identification projects in Chile, Cyprus, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Cameroon, Greece, the United States, Canada, and South Africa.      

In the past two decades, the ICMP grew into the leading organization dealing with missing persons not only in the context of conflict, but also natural disasters, organized crime and irregular migration. The ICMP works with governments, civil society and in particular the families of the missing, judicial institutions, and international organizations in locating and identifying missing persons. In its work, it engages in capacity building and training, promoting legislation, assisting advocacy efforts for the rights of families, and develops expertise, technology and technical assistance to others working to find and identify missing persons. Important principles in their work are impartiality and efficiency.

Overall, great strides forward have been made, in the former Yugoslavia, where ICMP started, and elsewhere, but the process is not over yet. Globally, there is no reliable information of how many people are missing as a consequence of armed conflict, and human rights abuses, not to mention immigration or natural disasters. The challenges world-wide are tremendous, and the ICMP will continue to assist governments in finding and identifying missing persons, but in cases of irregular immigration in particular, when people are on the move far from their state of origin, or when the capacity and resources of states are limited – it brings forth the need for cooperation and substantial financial support. The challenge is immense: hundreds of thousands are missing in Iraq and Syria alone, as a consequence of repression and conflict. 

The difficulties of getting states and the international community through international organizations, to take the issue of missing persons seriously, demonstrates the political and economic aspect of this problem. Many of the people that fall victim to conflict, or human rights abuses or trafficking, are poor and disadvantaged, and those populations are often ignored on the international stage. It is even harder to advocate for them, if they disappear in difficult to reach, dangerous areas. As we have seen with the unsatisfactory response to the refugee crises in the past few years, when the refugees are understood as merely a faceless mass, it is harder to care about them as sisters, brothers, children, fathers, mothers and grandparents, that disappear, and that are missed by those left behind.   

The work of the Commission is to provide some closure to families, prevent political opportunists to manipulate with numbers of missing for political gain, assist actors that seek to establish facts about the past, and more broadly, stabilize peace processes in post-conflict areas. As the world witnesses a number of devastating conflicts, refugee and migration crises, and natural disasters, the need for its work is likely to be even more pronounced in the future. Assisting the identification of missing persons must continue, and receive adequate support and funding from governments. With it, scientific innovation must be sustained, and partnerships formed to achieve that goal. The magnitude of the problem is frightening, and anything short of a sustained, serious effort from the international community will simply not be enough to address it.  

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© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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