Falkland/Malvinas Islands: Interview with the head of the Humanitarian Project Plan

04 April 2017

Laurent Corbaz is an experienced humanitarian worker who has spent more than 30 years with the ICRC. He is currently leading the project to implement the Humanitarian Project Plan. Under the plan, the ICRC will work to identify the mortal remains of unidentified Argentine soldiers buried in Darwin cemetery on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands.

In April 2012, the ICRC received a request from the government of Argentina to facilitate the identification of the mortal remains of the unidentified Argentine soldiers buried in Darwin cemetery. The ICRC accepted the request, motivated purely by its humanitarian mandate and the needs and interests of the families.

Following talks facilitated by the ICRC in December 2016, the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom agreed to entrust the ICRC with identifying Argentine soldiers buried in Darwin cemetery. On 20 December 2016, the Humanitarian Project Plan was signed by Argentina's deputy foreign minister, Pedro Villagra Delgado; the minister of state For Europe and the Americas at the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Alan Duncan; and the president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer.

Can you give us an update on the project? For example, you recently returned from a short preparatory visit to the islands. Why did you go and what did you do there?

The visit was the first step towards implementing the Humanitarian Project Plan based on the agreement reached with the governments of Argentina and the UK.

We were able to continue the discussions we'd been having with the various people involved. We also made the necessary administrative and logistical arrangements so that work can start, such as organizing accommodation and transport for the team, ensuring there will be access to water and electricity at the site, and making plans to install containers near the cemetery to house a temporary laboratory. This is to make sure that activities like collecting DNA samples can be carried out in the proper conditions.

In addition, we made progress on determining the most efficient procedure for transporting the DNA samples to the laboratories for analysis. Transport needs to be arranged ahead of the second phase – the start of the exhumations in mid-June.

Did you achieve everything that you'd hoped to on this trip?

We managed to get answers to all our questions, talk with a wide range of people, and make important strides in some areas, like making the necessary logistical and administrative arrangements for sending the forensic team. We also resolved some practical issues related to the forthcoming exhumations and the transport of DNA samples to the forensic laboratories. All this has been made possible by the strong support we have received locally.

What will happen to the samples and where will they be analysed?

The Argentine laboratory that is holding the families' reference samples will carry out the DNA testing for identification purposes (i.e. matching). Two other laboratories – one in Spain and one in the UK – will conduct the quality assurance and control on the DNA analyses. These laboratories were chosen in close consultation with the governments of Argentina and the UK.

What happens now?

We'll start setting up the site in May so that it is ready for the exhumation work to begin in mid-June. Recent media reports claiming that the exhumation process had already begun are incorrect.

What is your role in the process?

I am the focal point for the project at the ICRC. I'll be working closely with everyone involved, including colleagues at our headquarters in Geneva, our regional delegation in Brasilia, and our missions in Buenos Aires and London. My job is to ensure that the project runs smoothly, answer any questions, and help ensure there is a clear understanding in Argentina, in the UK and on the islands about what we're doing.

 Darwin Cemetery in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). ©EPA

Who else will be part of the ICRC team travelling to the islands?

The team also includes my deputy, Dr Morris Tidball-Binz, who will oversee the forensic aspects of the project, and a number of forensic specialists selected by the ICRC. Some of the specialists are from the University of the Basque Country. Both the UK and Argentina have agreed to this and our offer that, if they wish, they may provide a list of experts of their choice. The ICRC would then select up to two experts from each country to join the team.

Some people don't believe the bodies should be disturbed. They say it would only reopen old wounds and that the bodies should be left in peace. What is your response to that?

Both Argentina and the UK have decided to do everything possible to identify the remains of those who died during the international armed conflict between them, which is in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law (i.e. the law of armed conflict). In addition, more than 80 families have agreed to take part in the process. The consultations with the families have been led by the Argentine government, with ICRC support, and are ongoing. Their purpose is to inform as many families as possible directly about this project and to collect as many DNA or biological reference samples as possible in order to maximize the chances of identifying the human remains buried on the islands.

That said, we understand that exhuming and reburying human remains is a very sensitive issue, as it is in many countries and cultures. We have dealt with these issues many times in our efforts to find and identify missing people in current and former conflict zones around the world. We are taking particular care to ensure we do not create additional distress for families. For example, we have consulted with religious authorities on the islands, and they have expressed their willingness to help in any way they can. We look forward to continuing these consultations, including with the Catholic Church, as most of the families looking for their relatives have a Catholic background.

Just as importantly, I want to reassure people that the site and all the remains will be treated with the utmost respect throughout the forensic operation. This includes ensuring that all the exhumed remains are placed in new coffins and immediately reburied in the same graves they were exhumed from. As soon as the operation is complete, the graves and the cemetery will be restored to their original condition, in consultation with the cemetery caretaker.

How confident are you about the success of the project?

We are cautiously optimistic. We can only identify people whose families have provided the necessary informed consent, ante-mortem data and DNA samples. The humanitarian purpose of this operation is to find answers, and we hope to provide answers to as many families as possible.

Tell me about your previous experience with the ICRC. What drew you to this project?

As the former regional director for Europe and Central Asia at the ICRC, I have been involved in this project since the beginning – back in 2012, when the ICRC was approached by the Argentinian government. So I am happy to have the opportunity to stay involved and do my best to make sure that work progresses smoothly and our specialists can get the job done. And in so doing, to bring answers to as many families as possible.

No matter how much time has passed, there is still a need to find answers to lay the past to rest. For families who want their loved ones identified, answers help them move on and find closure.

In all, I've been working for the ICRC for over 30 years, both at headquarters in Geneva and in the field in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. As regional director, I was responsible for launching a humanitarian operation in Ukraine when the ongoing conflict in the east erupted in 2014.

Disclaimer: The designations employed in this interview do not imply official endorsement or the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the ICRC concerning the legal status of any territory, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Whenever a disputed territory is given different names by the parties concerned, the ICRC uses those names together, in French alphabetical order.

For further information, please contact:
Sandra Lefcovich, CICR, Brasilia, tel.: +55 61 981751599
Slefcovich@icrc.org