Iraq is affected by very high numbers of missing persons. Estimates run from a 250,000 to one million people missing from decades of conflict and human rights abuses. Today there are millions of relatives of the missing in Iraq who struggle with uncertainty surrounding the fate of a loved one. ICMP is working to help Iraq build the institutional capacity that will enable its citizens to address this issue.
ICMP staff first went to Iraq in 2003 to assess the provision of assistance, and began working with Iraqi institutions in 2005. It established an office in Baghdad in 2008 and in Erbil in 2010.
ICMP assisted in the development of the Law on the Protection of Mass Graves, which was created in 2005. The law provides a legal mechanism for locating missing persons, conducting excavations of mortal remains and identifying victims exhumed from mass graves. Under this law, the Ministry for Human Rights is designated to lead these efforts.
In 2012, ICMP signed an agreement with the four ministries engaged in addressing the missing persons’ process: the Ministry for Human Rights, the Ministries of Health in Baghdad and Erbil and the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. In the preamble to this agreement the authorities recognize that families have a right to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives, that uncertainty surrounding the fate of the missing is a continuing source of anguish and an obstacle to rebuilding civil society in Iraq, that the government has direct responsibility for efforts to locate and identify the missing, and that due to specific circumstances in Iraq an identification process led by DNA and complemented by other forensic methods is most appropriate. The agreement was geared towards building Iraq’s institutional capacity to address the issue of missing persons transparently, regardless of sectarian or national origin.
As part of its program to help develop the technical capacity of Iraqi institutions and set in place a sustainable process of locating, recovering and identifying the missing, ICMP has trained more than 550 Iraqi professionals from the various institutions engaged in the process, from across sectarian and national lines, to work together in the investigation of missing persons cases. ICMP has introduced effective identification methodologies to Iraqi scientists including the use of DNA matching between recovered bone samples and blood samples given by surviving family members. This training, which takes place both in Iraq and at ICMP’s headquarters in Sarajevo, includes basic DNA extraction, sequencing and amplification methodologies, and introduces the concept of high-throughput testing, which is vital to Iraq’s ability to test and match the well over one million blood and bone samples authorities there will have to collect.
ICMP has also developed a network across Iraq of families of the missing who share experiences and information in order to contribute to the process of resolving the fate of loved ones, as well as contributing to the process of truth, justice and restitution.
ICMP has provided assistance to the Martyrs Foundation, and the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan. This has included the formulation of policy initiatives to address the needs of the families of the missing and to create a technical plan to locate, recover and identify the missing, while at the same time building the institutional and legal capacity necessary to make this process sustainable. In addition, ICMP has hosted exchange visits of family association members, as well as visits by representatives of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Health to ICMP facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As part of its ongoing Civil Society Initiatives program, ICMP is working with key ministries to facilitate dialogue on missing persons issues between civil society and government institutions, and strengthen the capacities of victims’ groups. As well as providing training, ICMP staff members attend excavations with the Iraqi authorities, where they provide advice and assistance and note additional training needs that are included in future advanced training courses. As a result of this partnership, the Iraqi authorities have conducted several successful excavations including one site where the excavation team recovered more than 1,000 sets of human remains.