Out of a population of 3.4 million at the end of the conflict in 1995 an estimated 30,000 persons were unaccounted for. Today, the fate of an estimated 10, 000 persons remain unknown. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex postwar political and administrative system created significant problems in regard to the issue of missing persons. Based on two administrative “Entities,” the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s constitutional framework reflected only part of the political reality on the ground. That reality was often not predicated on formal Entity mechanisms but was instead informally dominated by Bosniak, Serb, and Croat ethnically centered political factions that represented the former warring parties. At the end of the conflict, each former warring party maintained a commission on missing persons that investigated cases pertaining to members of its own ethnic group. Since the numbers of persons missing from each group were vastly disproportionate, local attempts to organize body exchanges, sometimes even on a one-for-one basis, failed.
Coordinating the work being done by the three sides in Bosnia and Herzegovina was essential in order to achieve progress in the region.
In 1998 a proposal was made to create a Missing Persons Institute (MPI) for BiH. This proposal built upon an initiative launched by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in 1997 called the “Joint Exhumation Process” that permitted the three former warring parties to conduct exhumations relevant to their own missing persons on the “opposing side’s” territory. Coordination of the Joint Exhumation Process was eventually handed over to ICMP and in the summer of 2000 ICMP founded the Missing Persons Institute and registered the Institute in the Sarajevo Canton Court. Former ICMP Chairman Bob Dole hosted MPI’s inaugural ceremony in Sarajevo.
By 2003, the Entity authorities responsible for the missing persons process demonstrated an ability to work together in a manner that was yielding ever higher numbers of exhumations and identifications of missing persons. In addition, the political climate had become more conducive to the creation of joint institutions. Therefore, in the spring of 2003, the ICMP Chairman, James V. Kimsey, and Commission Member, Her Majesty Queen Noor, met the members of the tripartite Presidency of BiH and invited BiH to become the co-founder of the MPI along with ICMP. On 4 June 2003, the members of the tripartite BiH Presidency took the unanimous decision to accept ICMP’s invitation and requested that the BiH Council of Ministers (CoM) create a protocol that would allow the CoM to become the co-founder of MPI.
The Chairman of the Council of Ministers agreed to pursue this initiative with ICMP and following a two year consultative process that included ICMP, ICRC, government officials, families of the missing and others, the Agreement on Assuming the Role of Co-Founders of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina was signed between ICMP and the Council of Ministers in August 2005.
The first three members of the MPI Board of Directors officially took up their posts in 2006 and the members of the management bodies were formally appointed in the summer of 2007 following an open selection process.
The implementation of the Missing Persons Institute marks a milestone in the history of BiH and ICMP and provides a model for transitional justice that can be applied in many other situations and areas of the world.
The purpose of the MPI is to provide BiH with a sustainable national mechanism to address the issue of persons missing as a result of the conflict in BiH, regardless of their ethnic, religious or national origin. It will also ensure that mass grave sites are protected, catalogued and properly excavated and will ensure that relatives of the missing are able to participate in the work of searching for missing persons.
One of the major tasks of the MPI is to establish a unified central record of those who went missing during the conflict. The Central Records (Centralna evidencija nestalih) will include all records kept by Entity agencies and institutions, by associations of families of the missing and by ICMP, ICRC and other organizations. The central list will be subject to a rigorous verification process that will ensure its accuracy and eliminate political manipulation of numbers of missing persons.
In addition to the MPI, associations of families of missing persons lobbied the BiH Presidency to create a Law on Missing Persons. In 2003, the BiH Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees led a consultative drafting process which was completed in 2004 and included associations of families of the missing persons, ICMP, ICRC and the Entity institutions responsible for tracing missing persons. While the Law on Missing Persons entered into force on 18 November 2004, it remains to be fully implemented. Obstacles to implementation include the fact that the Central Records have not been created and verified, and that the financing for the Fund for Support to Families of Missing Persons Associations have not been allocated.
Specifically, to address the issue of the poor material status of the families of the missing persons, the Law on Missing Persons prescribes the establishment of a Fund for Support to Families of Missing Persons. Although the relevant by-laws were prepared by the Working Group on Implementation of the Law on Missing by 2006, the Entity Governments of BiH have been unable to reach agreement on the location of the seat or the method of participation in financing the Fund.