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Countries of the former Yugoslavia need to step up their efforts to resolve cases of missing persons

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 14/12/2010
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The presidents of Serbia and Croatia have met on several occasions recently and the issue of missing persons has been high on their agenda. It has been reported that the president of Serbia, Mr Boris Tadic, brought with him important documents to the latest meeting concerning persons who have been missing since the siege of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991. These developments are very encouraging.

Other politicians from the region should follow their example. Working together to bring an end to the suffering of the families of missing persons is a prerequisite for a true process of reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia.

More than 34 000 persons went missing as a result of the conflicts involving Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo(1). Approximately 20 000 cases were solved. However the families of almost 14 500 persons are still waiting to receive information about the fate of their loved ones. Not knowing what happened to a missing person is a particularly anguishing trauma and the suffering that these families endure must come to an end.

Waiting for the truth

“A part of my agony vanished that day…. At last I know where he is”, said Milka Budimirovic, a Bosnian mother, after she identified the remains of her son who had been missing since 1992 when the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She had waited nine long years to find the truth.

Her story is one of the fifteen portrayed in the book and photo exhibition Missing Lives, a tribute to missing persons in the former Yugoslavia, prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

States are obliged to provide information to families about the fate of persons missing as a result of armed conflicts. This obligation derives from the Geneva Conventions and from the European Convention on Human Rights, of which Article 3 stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The European Court of Human Rights has held in many cases that the suffering that families of missing persons endure due to the silence of the authorities constitutes inhuman treatment. 

Progress – but more needs to be done

Progress has been achieved: Croatia and Serbia established commissions on missing persons in the nineties. In 2005 the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established at state level. In Kosovo* the commission was set up in 2006. These national institutions have been successful in finding and, with the help of DNA testing, identifying missing persons. The International Commission on Missing Persons has played an important role in this process.

Experts agree that the resolution rate achieved in the region of the former Yugoslavia is much higher than in any other post-conflict region in the world.

However, more needs to be done. The International Committee of the Red Cross has suggested three steps to be taken by the authorities:

  • Initiate an extensive search for gravesite locations and information on the fate of missing persons in the States archives.
  • Speed up the identification of already exhumed bodies and provide increased resources to national commissions on missing persons and their forensic structures.
  • Exchange information unconditionally on the whereabouts of missing persons.

These steps are of the utmost importance. Ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance would be an additional step in the right direction.

Thomas Hammarberg

1 * "All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo."