Rolf Ekeus, International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) Commissioner and OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, states “The issue of persons missing from armed conflicts, from abuses of human rights and from other crimes against humanity is a global concern, and ICMP is the only organisation in the world that specifically addresses the complexities of this problem on a political, human rights and technical level.”

The ICMP believes family associations are vital in helping to get to the truth about missing persons, and thus, treats them as equal partners with government.

Burdens of war

Lidija Skaro says, “The members of family associations, mainly women, are brought together by the burdens they still carry from the war, and their day to day struggles. Many lost sons or husbands, and are forced into the position of heads of families and wage earners. But even in these difficult circumstances, they have come together to discover the truth. First off, the family association office is a safe place to come, a place for a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on when things get overwhelming. It’s a place that makes it easy for them to share their experiences, and that helps ICMP. But we have also educated them on more technical things, for example explaining what DNA analysis is. They have taken on much of the role of explaining to often suspicious relatives why they need to give blood samples for matching – and this has really helped to speed up ICMP’s work.”

“Sometimes also they have helped to identify the sites of mass graves. It’s a strange thing – when people return to their homes, there are three syndromes between them and neighbours of a different ethnic group. One is denial that anything happened. Another is deliberate turning their back on the past. But there is a third, where people start to share their memories of what happened, and this can be very fruitful and provide useful information to relevant authorities.”

Raising awareness

ICMP has actively encouraged public involvement and civil society initiatives and has established cooperation with an extensive regional network of more than 100 Associations of Missing Persons. ICMP also works with other war victims-survivors groups such as civilian victims, and former combatants.

Now, ICMP is looking to involve new members of civil society such as universities, journalists, artists and human rights NGOs to ensure that the work over the last decade and the issue of missing remains is sustained. “What is more of an issue is getting the people we work with, to work together.”

Kid gloves

In order to promote understanding and encourage greater cooperation between different religious/national groups on common advocacy issues, ICMP launched a pilot initiative and organised the “Paths to Reconciliation”, conference in 2003 which aimed to create space for discussion, truth seeking, justice and reconciliation through a series of round tables.

A second project, “Victims as Survivors: Dealing with the Past and Present”, was for family associations to discuss very sensitive issues, such as atrocities and disappearance of their beloved ones.

Skaro explains that the process has to be handled sensitively, “ Topics of identity, prejudice, conflict, communication and dialogue are addressed through a series of workshops, first by organising groups of the same ethnicity, but then the next phase involved mixed groups, to help people understand that all have common goals and problems.”

Project grants have been made to family associations, as well as training and technical assistance. One of the priorities has been to encourage networking, specifically to engage family associations in effective regional multi-national mechanisms that address the specific rights and needs of family members with missing relatives. ICMP has also been active in raising public awareness so as to improve understanding of the issue of missing persons and the situation of surviving family members. Since 2005, there is a fifteen member Regional Co-Ordination Board, representing the networks of family associations form Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia and Serbia.

"Six years ago, I could not have imagined that a family member of one ethnic group would go to his President and represent the experiences of all three communities."

This group is working to persuade the EU not to allow accession until the missing persons issue has been resolved and to turn the issue of missing persons from a political cause to one of human rights.