ICRC five-year strategy on the missing in former Yugoslavia

ICRC five-year strategy on the missing in former Yugoslavia

Article 26 November 2020 Bosnia and Herzegovina Croatia Serbia Kosovo

The Road Map - two years later

In July 2018, the ICRC officially launched its five-year strategy pertaining to 10,281 persons still missing as a consequence of the armed conflicts in the Western Balkans (WB) in the 1990s. In the last two years, 311 cases of Missing Persons have been solved across the region. In October 2020, the number of Missing Persons in Western Balkans stands at 10,003 (27 new cases registered). 

The objective of this five-year effort is to explore all feasible avenues to clarify the fate and whereabouts of as many missing persons as possible in order to finally bring closure to their families and communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Kosovo* and Serbia.

After more than two years, following the launch of the strategy, the ICRC wants to take stock of the situation and to present an update on the activities that have been implemented since the beginning of the roadmap.

* The name is without prejudice to status and is consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and the opinion of the International Court of Justice on declaration of independence of Kosovo


Related to conflict in:Missing people reported to ICRCIdentifiedStill unaccounted for 
Identified since July 2018
Bosnia and Herzegovina
22,42416,0386,386 (7,547*)226 (289*)
Republic of Croatia**

* Official figures of the Missing Persons Institute are higher than ICRC's, since not all missing persons were reported to the ICRC.
** Figures for Croatia provided quarterly by Croatian Red Cross – last update from Oct 2020.

The ICRC's pledge

Searching for information:

Since July 2018, the ICRC contacted 42 countries, 7 international/intergovernmental organizations (NATO, EU, UN, UNHCR, OSCE) and a number of other organizations, local and international NGOs, requesting transmission of information from their archives that could potentially lead to the clarification of the fate and whereabouts of persons missing in relation to the conflicts in the region.

As a result, and for the time being, the USA, France, Denmark, Poland, Canada, Norway, Finland and Italy sent relevant documentation to the ICRC, while the Netherlands, EU, NATO HQ and the UNHCR have granted direct access to their respective archives to the ICRC team of researchers.

In October 2018, the ICRC signed an Agreement with the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT). The archives of this institution are the primary source of information pertaining to the conflicts in the WB with over 10 million documents available.

By reinforcing previous cooperation, the ICRC aimed at searching these archives for information that can contribute to clarifying the fate and whereabouts of each missing person. Since September 2018, the two ICRC researchers deployed in IRCMT HQ in The Hague completed the search for relevant information related to over 3,700 Missing Persons.

In total, the ICRC received over 100,000 pages of documents from these sources. The documentation received from international archives is reviewed by an ICRC team of researchers and forensic advisors who are based in the Western Balkans. Once processed, this carefully selected and reviewed documentation is handed over to the various Commissions and national institutions in charge of the search for Missing Persons in their respective countries (Croatia, BiH, Serbia, Kosovo*).

In addition, in the last two years, the ICRC handed over 27 analytical reports containing relevant information and recommendations and selected documentation related to potential gravesites to the national authorities for their further action.

MPI investigator and ICRC researcher assess the location of the potential gravesite

COVID-19 crisis impact

Due to COVID-19 crisis, the field investigation work of the national authorities has been suspended for several months during the first half of 2020. The activities have recently resumed in BiH, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo* where several site assessments or/and exhumations have taken place based on the information transmitted to the authorities by the ICRC.

Supporting families and communities

Since July 2018, a number of activities have been conducted aiming at supporting the families of the missing persons and their communities. In total, more than 11, 000 persons in Serbia, BiH and Kosovo* received psycho-social support through various projects, including numerous commemorative events and anniversaries, for which the ICRC provided financial support.

PSS workshop for the families of the missing in Neum

In BiH, a program of financial and expert support to academics working on different psychological and social issues related to missing persons and their families has been continued successfully in partnership with 12 faculties from six universities in the country.

By 31 August 2020, the ICRC facilitated and financially supported 14 MA/PhD and two interdisciplinary research projects on the topics relevant for the tracing process, psychological and social consequences on the families of missing persons and their communities in BiH.

COVID-19 has caused a delay in the implementation of the programs related to the psychological support to the families that are still without news on their missing relatives in Kosovo* and Serbia. These programs have been designed on the basis of recommendations from the evaluation of the families' needs conducted by the ICRC specialist in 2018.

COVID-19 crisis and the ICRC response

In response to the negative impact of the pandemic on the Families of the Missing Persons throughout the Western Balkans, the ICRC contributed to alleviating its consequences by providing ad hoc assistance to the most vulnerable.

In Kosovo*, one-off financial support was provided to over 170 families facing economic hardship. Furthermore, since June 2020, the ICRC started providing the psychosocial support to the families of missing persons, related to COVID-19. Since then, tens of families of missing were supported by the Psychologist either through over 50 psychosocial phone sessions or through visits in the field.

RC volunteers deliver hygiene and food parcels to the families of the missing in BiH

In BiH, the ICRC initiated and coordinated an assessment of needs of 1,777 members of families of missing persons aged 65+ years. Based on the assessed needs, from May to July the BiH Red Cross Society, with ICRC's financial and technical support, delivered hygiene and food parcels and other services to 800 members of families in need.

Acting as a neutral intermediary

In the last 24 months, the ICRC continued performing its traditional role of neutral intermediary by chairing three sessions of the Working Group on Missing Persons related to the conflict in Kosovo* (WG), one Sub Working Group session and four Analysis Team meetings, including one virtual due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The mechanism was further strengthened in February 2020 through the adoption of the modified Sub-Working Group (SWG) Terms of Reference, which outline the scope and purpose of the Analysis Team and enhance the WG's operational capacity.

Within the framework of the EU dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, the ICRC was invited to Brussels in July 2020 to present the role and the achievements of the WG. On this occasion, the EU underlined the importance of the mechanism and reaffirmed its support to the role of the ICRC as its Chair.

Assessment of the terrain in Kizevak

In BiH, the ICRC continued to facilitate and tighten cooperation between different actors (MPI, prosecution, law enforcement, international organizations and family associations of different national backgrounds) within the Operational Working Group on Missing Persons.

Sharing expertise and experience with relevant institutions

The forensic team in the Western Balkans

The ICRC supported the Kosovo Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM) by providing a five-day training course in forensic archaeology and surveying, in line with international best practices. The ICRC also participated in the Working Group, established by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), for the drafting of the IFM bylaw, adopted in July, which governs its structure and staffing.

In March 2020, an earthquake in Zagreb considerably damaged the DNA laboratory of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Criminology, preventing it from carrying out its function. In order to ensure that this crucial aspect of the identification process resumes quickly and swiftly, the ICRC provided emergency funding for the rehabilitation of the laboratory.

Training on forensic anthropology for the Institute of Forensic Medicine and other field staff held in Pristina

Since the beginning of the roadmap, the ICRC has supported the refurbishment of three mortuaries throughout BiH in which human remains of the missing persons are kept. As part of its objective to develop and strengthen local forensic capacities, the ICRC supported 5 forensic experts with training programmed tailored to their needs.

Additionally, the ICRC supported the BiH Association of Forensic Medicine on developing and publishing a set of Guidelines on Exhuming, Examining and Storing Unidentified Human Remains. To improve the forensic fieldwork on gravesites, the ICRC also provided continuous expertise in preparing and conducting exhumations and donated 27 GPS devices and 22 laptops to the BiH Missing Persons Institute.

ICRC donated 27 GPS devices and 22 laptops to MPI BiH

COVID-19 crisis and ICRC response

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 in the region, the ICRC Forensic Unit extended their support to the local Forensics Institutes and experts facing this new and difficult situation. As a result, the ICRC managed to support the local institutions with relevant reference material (translated into local languages), such as the ICRC guidelines on the management of the dead in the context of COVID-19, as well as donations of very necessary PPE, according to the needs.

The ICRC call for action

The tracing and identification process is complex, as are the needs of the families, whose loved ones are still missing, and their communities. Many different steps, bodies and organizations are involved at local, national and regional levels.

The ICRC is therefore appealing to the authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo* and Serbia, and to the international community, to help speed up the process of establishing the fate and whereabouts of those who are still unaccounted for. 

Accelerating the tracing and identification process and supporting the families require a collective effort across the region to: 

  • Ensure national institutions and mechanisms are endowed with the necessary political, financial and technical capacity to fulfil their responsibilities in the tracing and identification process.
  • Ensure that forensic resources adequately facilitate the tracing and identification process.
  • Ensure that the rights and interests of the families of the missing persons are protected by law.
  • Facilitate the implementation of the relevant legislation and legal provisions.
  • Engage and encourage all actors involved to support the humanitarian endeavour to resolve the fate of the missing persons.
  • Grant the ICRC access to national and international archives and to other sources of information to facilitate the search for gravesites for humanitarian reasons.

Together we can help the families and communities that are still waiting for answers achieve closure, deal with the past and move forward.

These families and communities will not be satisfied until they receive credible information, their suffering is acknowledged and recognized, and they are provided with the support they need to live with the ambiguous loss of having a missing family member. Families have the right to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and it is ultimately the authorities' responsibility to uphold that right and allow communities to come to terms with the past.