Accounting for missing people is vital for stability in a post-war scenario --- ICRC

from AlertNet
Published on 13 Nov 2009 View Original
Written by: James Kilner

LONDON (AlertNet) - In regions emerging from conflict the painstaking task of identifying missing people is vital for reconciliation and stability, the Balkan delegation chief for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The ICRC's Paul-Henri Arni added that Iraq and other countries rebuilding after conflict could learn from the lengthy process of finding thousands who went missing during wars in the former Yugoslavia.

"The issue has to be put higher up the list of priorities by humanitarian agencies and governments," he said in an interview with AlertNet.

"This issue is a humanitarian priority that is affecting more and more countries around the world."

In Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia, the ICRC has worked with governments and other aid agencies to find nearly 19,000 people from over 34,000 missing from wars between 1991 and 2000.

Just over 3,300 were found alive, most being held in detention.

"I've been in the Red Cross for 19 years and I have not seen in armed conflict a suffering, a pain, going as deep as the pain of having a loved one go missing," Arni said.

Two defining characteristics of the three Balkan wars -- Croatia 1991-95, Bosnia 1992-95, Kosovo 1998-2000 -- were that thousands of civilians died and that about a quarter of all the casualties simply disappeared, he said.

Their bodies were thrown into lakes, or burnt, or dumped in mass unmarked graves.

Modern DNA techniques have been used, as well as dental records and items of clothing, to find their remains -- important to allow people to mourn by a grave with dignity.

"When people are at that stage they don't think of politics any more, they don't think about hating the other community," Arni said. "It's one contribution, digit by digit, to lessen the political tension."

Legally it is also very important. Most of the missing people are men and finding their remains allows their widows to receive a pension, remarry or sell property.

But although a lot of bodies had been found several thousand would probably never be discovered, Arni said.

He also said that Iraq was probably facing the highest number of missing people in the world after three conflicts -- a war with Iran in the 1980s, the first Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S.-led operation in 2003.

"If you have half-a-million people in Iraq missing, then you probably have many more people directly affected, directly very angry, not agreeing to reconciliation," he said.

Arni was quoting the International Commission on Missing Persons's estimate of about 500,000 people missing in Iraq.

And there are a few lessons Iraq and other countries could learn from the former Yugoslavia, he said.

Humanitarian organisations often prefer a quick fix but resolving cases of missing persons takes years -- decades, even -- to do the job properly, he said, and because it is complex work it needs close coordination across many different groups.

But most importantly finding missing people needs to be viewed as a political, and not just a humanitarian, issue.

International law says that states have a responsibility to account for missing persons.

"We're looking for human remains but we're talking about a highly sensitive emotional and political issue that is linked to the living," Arni said.

For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit