Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) on 3 March 1992. The conflict that unfolded over the next three and half years witnessed killings, torture and disappearances as a result of military action and also as a result of “ethnic cleansing” and other human rights violations and crimes against humanity, often perpetrated against civilians. Just over 100,000 people lost their lives. This figure includes approximately 31,500 missing persons.
Despite the administrative limitations of a complex government structure and systematic efforts by some parties to prevent the location and identification of bodies, approximately 70% of persons reported missing as a consequence of the war have been accounted for. No other post-conflict country has achieved such a high rate of resolving cases of missing persons.
Since 1996, ICMP has played a central role in this effort, by helping to develop Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutional capacity to address the issue of missing persons in a non-discriminatory manner, crafting legislation to safeguard the rights of families, introducing systematic forensic methods, including the use of DNA, upholding rule of law-based processes that have ensured the provision of evidence to domestic courts and the ICTY, and facilitating the active engagement of the families of the missing.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress on this issue should be seen in the context of a developed policy framework incorporating international standards of technical and administrative capacity. The result has been an institutional, legislative and cooperative process, underpinned by the establishment of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina (MPI), the establishment of the Central Records, the adoption of a Law on Missing Persons and the creation of inter-institutional cooperation mechanisms to address the issue of unidentified human remains in the country’s mortuaries under the overall auspices of domestic courts and prosecutors.
The Missing Persons Institute
The launching of the MPI as a state-level institution, on 30 August 2005, the International Day of the Disappeared, marked the transfer of responsibility from Entity commissions on missing persons to the State level and the end of a segregated process of accounting for the missing. The establishment of the MPI was preceded by a two-year consultative process that included representatives of the families of the missing, the Entity governments and Brčko District, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as an observer. The first three members of the MPI Board of Directors took office in 2006, and the members of other management bodies were formally appointed in the summer of 2007. Establishing the MPI was a milestone in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war recovery, providing for a sustainable domestic mechanism to locate missing persons regardless of their ethnic, religious or national affiliation, or their role in past hostilities. MPI also ensures that mass gravesites are protected, documented and properly excavated, and that relatives of the missing and others are able to participate in the institution’s work.
The BiH Law on Missing Persons
The BiH Law on Missing Persons, enacted in 2004 (BiH Official Gazette 50/2004), was the first such piece of national legislation related to missing persons anywhere in the world. It prescribed the families’ right to the truth about the fate of their missing relatives as well as the right to information about ongoing investigations. It also prescribed the creation of the Missing Persons Institute with a mandate to search for and identify missing persons across the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina thereby ending the discriminatory practice of searching for missing persons based on their ethnicity or religion. It prescribed the creation of both the Central Records of missing persons and a Fund for the Families of the Missing. It also made provision for sanctions against individuals who withhold information pertaining to the fate of missing persons.
The Law has not yet been fully implemented: establishing the Fund and finalizing verification of the Central Records on Missing Persons are among the tasks that require further work.
The BiH Central Records of Missing Persons (CEN)
Article 2.1 of the Law for the Establishment of Central Records of Missing Persons (CEN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of the MPI states that the purpose of the CEN is to unify information on missing persons kept at local and Entity levels by:
- The authorities;
- Non-governmental organizations;
- Families of missing persons; and
- Tracing offices and international organizations
Establishing a single, unified list of missing persons as mandated by the Law on Missing Persons is an important way of ensuring that there is one set of accurate and reliable numbers. Among other things, this reduces the scope for political manipulation and misrepresentation of numbers.
The unified CEN database was completed in February 2011. It combined 12 separate databases with information on missing persons collected by the former Federation Commission on Missing Persons, the RS Office for Tracing Missing and Detained Persons and the State Commission on Tracing Missing Persons, as well as data from ICRC and ICMP.
The completion of the CEN is of regional significance. In 2011, at the request of the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, ICMP initiated the compilation of a unified regional list of persons missing in the Western Balkans. This list seeks to arrive at a definitive number of persons missing in these countries. It will also help to clarify jurisdictional issues related to the search for persons reported missing in more than one country. In addition to its immediate practical benefits, the list represents a historical record.
Summary and the Future
Bosnia and Herzegovina has witnessed a shift in approach to the missing persons issue, from one governed by a humanitarian rationale, to one firmly placed within a rule of law framework, in which the resolution of missing persons cases is addressed by the country’s rule of law institutions, including its criminal justice system. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to continue to bolster the MPI’s effectiveness, a task which is particularly important in view of the country’s volatile political environment. The Law on Missing Persons has still not been fully implemented. Establishing the Fund for families of missing persons and finalizing verification of the CEN are among the most important tasks for the immediate future.
For a detailed account of the effort to locate and identify missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina click here.