Eastern Europe: clarifying the fate of Georgians, Ossetians and Russians missing in connection with 2008 hostilities

12-05-2010 Interview

Djordje Drndarski, the ICRC's deputy head of operations for Eastern Europe, explains how coordination mechanisms can help families find out what happened to their missing loved ones.

  ©ICRC/J. Powell / ge-e-00573    
Tbet, South Ossetia, a woman shows an ICRC employee pictures of her son who disappeared as a result of the conflict in 2008.    
  ©ICRC/J. Powell / ge-e-00595    
Skra centre for displaced people, Georgia. Mzia with a photo of her husband, Vladimir, who went missing during the conflict.    

 What exactly is the role of the ICRC in the search for missing persons?  

The first and most important thing to point out is that the families of missing persons have the right to know what happened to their loved ones. So the ICRC reminds the parties to the conflict of the provisions in international humanitarian law setting out this right and of their obligation to search actively for persons reported missing. The families need to end the uncertainty, close the grieving process and go on with their lives. Allow me to take this occasion to commend the Georgian, South Ossetian and Russian parties on their commitment to participating in this important process.

The ICRC plays two main roles: it serves as a neutral intermediary between the parties and it provides support for the families of missing persons.

In its role as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC obtained the agreement of the parties to set up a mechanism within which it coordinates in a confidential manner the exchange of information between the parties and stands ready to provide any necessary technical support required for the recovery and identification of mortal remains.

In parallel, the ICRC provides support for the families, who face legal, financial, social and psychological problems. (See also Missing loved ones: helping families cope with the uncertainty ).

I would like to emphasize that the mechanism is strictly humanitarian in purpose and does not involve any poli tical aspects. The ICRC is committed to serving as a neutral intermediary on these issues on the basis of the applicable provisions of international humanitarian law.

 How does the ICRC obtain information about people who went missing?  

One of the ICRC's most important activities in conflict situations consists in restoring contact between family members who have been separated from one another. During and after the August 2008 conflict, the ICRC received tracing requests from families of missing persons which it took up with the authorities. In total, 1234 tracing requests were received, but luckily most cases were quickly resolved and family links restored.

The ICRC searches for people in towns and villages, visits places of detention, checks out allegations of arrest and makes every possible effort to find those who have gone missing. Participants in the coordination mechanism will convey any further information they obtain. The cases of 47 persons remain unresolved.

 What kind of technical support can the ICRC give the parties?  

One type of support consists in drawing up and constantly updating the list of missing persons. Another concerns forensic issues.

The type of forensic support provided by the ICRC depends on what is specifically required in a given context. In all cases, however, the ICRC becomes involved only with the consent of the parties and at their request. The ICRC helps build the capacity of local staff to carry out forensic activities through training programmes, seminars and workshops. It also provides support for ante-mortem data collection, exhumations and other activities, tools for use in laboratory analysis, and other kinds of technical support useful in identifying mortal remains in a mann er consistent with international standards. (See also Missing persons: providing support to the grieving. ) In addition, the ICRC can – if requested by the parties – serve as a neutral intermediary in transfers of mortal remains.

 What was the aim of the two meetings linked to the 2008 hostilities and what will happen next?  

The issue of missing persons is highly charged throughout the entire Caucasus region owing to the armed conflicts that have taken place there since the 1990s. After the most recent conflict, once most families had succeeded in restoring contact with their relatives, the ICRC quickly set up a special humanitarian mechanism to determine what happened to those who had gone missing, as it is important not to waste any time.

The first formal meeting of the mechanism was held in Switzerland on 23 February. Representatives from Tbilisi, Tskhinvali/Tskhinval and Moscow took part. A second meeting took place on 29 April, during which terms of reference were discussed and information on missing persons and gravesites was exchanged. A presentation on exhuming and identifying remains was made by an ICRC forensic adviser, and the participants considered the concrete action that needed to be taken.

The list of missing persons is currently being discussed, and another meeting should take place in June. On the basis of comments received from the participants, the ICRC will assess the level of additional technical support that each party requires to be able to carry out recovery and identification work in accordance with international standards.

 Are there other places where the ICRC plays a similar role in coordination mechanisms and forensic activities?  

The ICRC provides support for coordination mechanisms seeking to determine what happened to people missing in connection with the events in Kosovo from 1998 to 2000, the 1990-1991 Gulf War and other events. It serves in different capacities depending on the needs and requests of the authorities concerned. In Cyprus, the ICRC offered advice and support in establishing and training a forensic team, comprising both Greek and Turkish Cypriot forensic scientists, which is seeking to resolve cases of missing persons. Within the Caucasus region, the ICRC has been actively involved in collecting data on people still missing in connection with the Nagorny-Karabakh conflict and in providing training for local forensics experts in the northern Caucasus. Our organization also carries out forensic activities in the Middle East and throughout Latin America.