AI VISITING : The International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP)

There is no peace without finding victims first

Prepared by: Atlantic Initiative team

{artsexylightbox}It’s getting harder to find missing persons  and to discover new information on which the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) could work with. All the remains at Srebrenicaare yet to be found , and this justifies the ICMP continued operations and laboratory work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a tremendous capacity for identification and analysis at the same time, states ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger for Atlantic Initiative.

Capacities for analysis exist in the appropriate measures. However, she is more concerned with the lack of state support to the institutions dealing with this problem, particularly the Institute for Missing Persons.

“I’m afraid that this might fail. Lack of interest in this problem and political interests related to it can undermine the whole process. It will always be politicized to some extent, unfortunately, because these victims are the result of political interests and motives. If it were the victims of, lets say, natural disasters, the families would probably receive much more honest information and explanations – real reasons as to why some skeletal remains can not be identified and why some of them never will be. They would have a lot more honest information from their political representatives and government in this country “, said the director of the ICMP.



Finding missing persons and the identification of remains is a very important process for peace building and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region and worldwide. Approximately 14,000 missing persons in BiH have been identified through DNA analysis since November 2001, while the total number of identified people with this method in the ICMP centre is over 18,000. Prior to this, conventional methods in BiH have identified around 8,000 people. Of the estimated 30,000 who disappeared during the war, they have discovered the fate of 22,000 people. The director says that an estimated 8000-10000 people may still be considered missing. Within this number, they should also first resolve the problem of potential false identifications before they begin the DNA analysis method of identification.

“These potential misidentifications may now increase the number of unidentified people for the simple reason that families, who have identified their missing loved ones, do not see the need to give us a blood sample. So we can not identify the right person, and they might have buried the wrong person, “she said.

In the ICMP, they are aware that the remaining missing persons will be much harder to detect and identify. However, knowing how important it is, they are trying to find a way to solve these cases and say to the families how this will be performed..
“We have to think carefully about what is the magic number that can ensure lasting peace and security for the future, because the fact is that all of the missing persons cannot be found,” said Bomberger.

The ICMP was established in 1996. on the initiative of the then U.S. President Bill Clinton, after a summit of G-7 countries in Lyon (France). The first chairman was former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. He was succeeded by Senator Bob Dole. The current Chairman of the ICMP is Thomas Miller.

The International Commission is financed through voluntary contributions, donations and contributions from the Governments of Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Vatican, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Great Britain, the U.S. and the European Union.

The ICMP headquarters is in Sarajevo, and is engaged in the Western Balkans, the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. In addition to helping countries that are facing the problem of missing persons due to violations of human rights, the ICMP provides assistance in cases of natural disasters. So they have recently been engaged in the Philippines after typhoon Frank, in Southeast Asian areas affected by the tsunami and in the USA – Louisiana after hurricane Katrina.

“The basic idea of ​​international assistance in terms of political support and efforts to locate and identify missing persons, is that there can not be lasting peace and stability without finding them first,” said Bomberger.

The ICMP was created at the same time as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The idea of the ​​ICMP was that families have a right to know, and also they have the right to justice, says Bomberger, which makes a difference, because then the problem of missing persons is approached also from the aspect of the rule of law.

“The skeletal remains are not excavated only for identification. Their excavation begins the process of criminal investigation. Charity aid can cover the period from searching to exhumation and burial, but what about later. Here is where we see our contribution, “she says.


Prior to establishing the ICMP, the so-called charity aid situation was ongoing. In South America, mainly NGOs were finding bodies and all of those that were found were identified thanks to their efforts, rather than government institutions. A similar situation occurred  in Cyprus, where the commission engaged in this work is led by the UN. The director of the ICMP states that they also decided to carry out identification and finding bodies, but that they do not do an investigation on the circumstances of the deaths. In Cyprus the cases are ongoing since the sixties. From a few thousand people who disappeared, only about 200 have been identified.

“Thus we can see how this is a big difference and how this process is successful in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially because cases in BiH date from the nineties,” says Bomberger.



Thanks to DNA analysis, they identified 6700 persons killed in the genocide of an estimated 8100, who disappeared during the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, which is about 85 percent.

“Honestly, I think we would have stayed in the instability phase we hadn’t identified about 85 percent of the missing persons in Srebrenica. If DNA analysis was not used as the method of identification, the issue of missing persons from Srebrenica would remain for ever and ever controversial and still used in political manipulations. Not that it’s still not used, at least to some extent, but the situation would be much worse today, “said Bomberger.

One of the most important achievements is the central database of the Institute for Missing Persons which holds information on all missing persons from all categories of society and all nations, as well as war crimes against these people. The database will be transparently available to everyone; the Institute will take care of its verification. Here, families and the public have access to the lists. The fact is, in the ICMP they are convinced that this is a huge step compared to what was done in the world, especially in South America.

“This database is regularly sent to all governments in the region, so that they know who is missing and who has been identified on the basis of these lists,” said Bomberger.

Unfortunately, that is not the information that some want to recieve. The director of ICMP thinks that this is one of the reasons for constant attacks on the Institute.

“In your country there are still forces that would like to search for the missing persons conducted on the basis of their ethnicity. To get back at that time when Serbs were searhing for Serbs, Bosniaks for Bosniaks, Croats for Croats, that no one shares information with others, that nobody knows anything, sees the whole picture, does not see everything. From SNSD we constantly keep recieving such demands. The state must continue to support the Institute, with all its shortcomings, it must continue its work because it is the only guarantee that all information collected will be available to all citizens. Although Dodik said that only those agreements that the RS authorities put his signature on are legitimate, the situation is not like that. The Institute was created by the will of the RS, the Brcko District, the Federation of Bosnia and the ICMP, which all put their signatures on the establishment. One can say that there are some other forces, but they are much weaker and less visible. The irony is that currently nobody cares about the Institute, except for the SNSD who want to destroy it. All this nonsense that the Institute does not seek the missing Serbs, to obstruct the search, are meaningless. If evidence would exist, we would be the first to react, “said Bomberger.

Beside these, so-called problems, there are real issues.

“Before the ICMP started identification in 2001, it was made by classical methods. We believe that in this period errors arose in identification. Therefore we still have in the morgue in RS about 400 and in Sanski Most around 500 remains that we are unable to identify even though we have a complete sets of reference samples from living relatives. This will be one of the reasons that at the beginning of 2013 we will organize an international symposium, inviting all the important names in the world of forensics. Efforts to identify dead and missing persons during the terrorist attacks on New York 11th September 2001 came to a stage where they could no longer be found. They finished with some 60 percent. New Yorkers have the problem that we have here – giving away parts of the skeleton remains to the family members as they are identified and new body parts are found. Similar to our practice of identification of victims from mass graves in Srebrenica, where we found the body parts in different graves in different periods, New Yorkers are finding body parts after a certain time and are faced with the difficulty and hardships to return the extra part of the body to their families again, after part of the body already was identified and returned andgiven to the family.

But since this technology is entirely new, these are also new problems that the entire forensic community in the world is facing. Despite all of our explanations on  forensic issues, some people in the RS do not want to accept these explanations, yet are still ‘pushing’ their theories. Perhaps the most painful of all is the fact that they give  this minsinformation to Serbian families, causing them tremendous pain, “said Bomberger.

Many heroes


Bomberger, on the other hand, is full of praise for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the local institutions involved in finding missing persons. In the vast extent, NGOs are also involved in these achievements, and the credit goes not only to the ICMP.

“There are many heroes in this story. A simple thing like an old lady from a traditional, rural communities, giving her blood sample to the ICMP for something that she does not understand, for us initially was a tremendous achievement. A fact is that 90,000 people so far from this region gave a blood sample to the ICMP. We hope that at the end this will be of use to the country for its peace and stability, “said Bomberger.

From a total of more than 40,000 missing persons in  wars in the region, 30,000 are accounted for in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 6,000 in Croatia and 4,500 in Kosovo. In Croatia and Kosovo there are still about 1,800 people listed as missing.

“It became almost impossible to find anyone from these two areas, and we do not know why. The bodies may be hidden, some may have been burned and destroyed, we may have the wrong identification. Such a case of burned bodies we have here. Say, what were the odds of lake Perucac to be emptied and to find 400 remains on the bottom. Even some notorious cases, such as ‘Štrpci’ in Montenegro, were discovered in Perućac. We also found people missing from the First World War there. You can only imagine how many bodies are so well hidden, “said Bomberger.

ICMP is working on resolving many complex identifications from all over the world. Thanks to modern laboratory system in BiH and the use of DNA analysis, they worked on the identification of missing persons from the apartheid times in South Africa, followed by Norwegian soldiers killed by Germans during World War II, victims of natural disasters in Thailand, the Philippines, from Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. , followed by Iraq, missing persons from  Colombia, killed during the Pinochetovog regime in Chile and during the civil war in Spain under the rule of General Franco … The International Commission has an agreement with INTERPOL, through which it helps in cases of major natural disasters. The new Libyan authorities are seeking  help from the ICMP , who want their country to use the experience from Bosnia and Herzegovina in finding missing persons. Bomberger says that they are expressing a clear willingness and commitment not to be like  Gaddafi’s regime. They are trying to solve the problem of all their missing, without discrimination, and have already established the State Commission for Missing Persons.

“In the event of a disaster, we can very quickly make a base that can log all the family members of missing persons and to check the stage of the case of their missing persons. You can imagine how the ICMP system is much easier and reduces costs. We have more requests for assistance to governments in cases of trafficking and violence, such as those in Mexico related to drug trafficking. We also have requirements that this system is applied to the whole world, because this issue is global. A woman who disappeared in Bulgaria can be found in Mexico, but will never be identified without a global approach to the problem. We want to give this issue a global dimension, to create a global database. The ICMP already has about 150,000 genetic samples. All governments in the world would benefit from the networking of such data. Specifically, the ICMP is shared with four governments in the region of their data and it is beneficial to all countries. Croatia, for example, on one occasion asked for people who disappeared in Vukovar. These individuals were searched for on the territory of Serbia. They were not found there, but we found Srebrenica victims instead. This type of regional cooperation has enabled us to resolve these cases. Something similar could be done for the United States and Mexico. Someone originated from America could disappear in Mexico and the family could be looking for them in a third location, for example in Guatemala, or anywhere else. A joint approach to this problem is very important, “said Bomberger.

At your service around the world

The ICMP deem it necessary to build a permanent capacity that would be available for all countries in the world and they will be able to react immediately.
    “The essence of our mission is not only to find people, but that the government and countries are forced to act better towards its citizens. Because, I tell them, ‘You can not just kill a certain number of people, kill them, hide them, hide their bodies. You can not do that. ‘ I think there’s a lot of goodwill in the world for the existence of one such organization. However, today there is much evil in the world. Today you have a lot more violence than a decade ago. We hope that there will be much more understanding, because it helps the families of missing persons and helps them in finding their missing. We hope to have progress similar to that in Libya, “said Bomberger.

While this is all ongoing, the ICMP is working on expandure of protocols on DNA identification. They previously worked with 16 genetic markers. Currently they are working on 23 markers, and will also work with 30 more to assess the blood samples of distant relatives in order to do everything possible identify the missing.