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Update No. 96/3 on ICRC activities in the former Yugoslavia

31-01-1996 Operational Update

 General situation  

On 20 January (Day 30), IFOR reported extensive compliance by the parties with the commitments signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, marking considerable progress in implementation of the Peace Agreement. The ICRC is following this process very closely, since the parties now have to put very important provisions of international humanitarian law (IHL) - confirmed by this agreement - into practical effect; they apply in particular to the prisoners, who have to be released when active hostilities have ceased, and to families, who have the right to know what has happened to those next of kin with whom they have lost contact during the conflict.

 1.The release of prisoners  

 Provisions in the General Framework Agreement for Peace  

Under Article IX of Annex 1-A to the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the parties were required to release and transfer all combatants and civilians held in relation to the conflict by 19 January 1996, in conformity with international humanitarian law. The ICRC was asked to draw up a plan of operation for their release and transfer, and to monitor its implementation.

 ICRC activities to implement the release plan  

Since mid-December 1995, the ICRC has accordingly established guidelines for the release and transfer operation, and has communicated them to the parti es and to IFOR; it has also conducted bilateral consultations with the parties.

 On 4 January the parties gave lists of prisoners under their responsibility to the Joint Military Commission (the parties, IFOR and the High Representative) and to the ICRC, which drew up a release plan in consultation with them.

  On 8 January the plan was presented to the JMC: whereas the Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb delegations signed the plan, the Bosnian Government delegation refused to do so unless certain conditions were met.

  From 9 to 12 January , the ICRC carried out visits to places of detention and to prisoners to ask where each one wished to go after being released.

  On 15 and 16 January , the release and transfer operation was due to take place, but only 9 prisoners were in fact released, by the Bosnian Croat authorities (HVO).

  On 19 January , the deadline under the Agreement, the parties proceeded to release and transfer some of the prisoners: out of a total of 863 prisoners noti fied by the parties to the ICRC for this purpose or registered by it, 645 remained in captivity.

  On 20 January , the ICRC sent a letter to IFOR Commander Admiral Leighton Smith, informing him that the parties had failed to free all prisoners and that a number of them were still to be released. Consultations also took place with the High Representative and intensive contact was made at the diplomatic level to persuade the parties to complete the release and transfer process.

  On 25 January , an ICRC status report informed the members of the JMC and the Presidents of the Republics of Croatia and of Serbia, both of whom had endorsed the Agreement, about the extent to which the parties had fulfilled their obligations with regard to the release and transfer of prisoners. All were reminded that under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners must be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of hostilities.

  Between 26 and 30 January , the parties released and transferred a further 553 prisoners.

 Number of prisoners released by the parties:


Prisoners to be rel eased

Prisoners released

by 19.1.96

Prisoners released

by 30.1.96

Bosnian government




Bosnian Serb authorities




Bosnian Croat authorities




 After the releases of the past few days, approximately one hundred prisoners scheduled for release remain in detention. According to the parties, investigations for war crimes have started against some of them. Article IX of Annex 1-A to the Dayton Accord stipulates that each party must detain persons reasonably suspected of such violations for a period of time sufficient to permit appropriate consultation with the International Tribunal.

 2. The search for persons unaccounted for  

The ICRC is keenly aware of the unbearable ordeal of thousands of people left without news of their loved ones. It shares their anxiety and is firmly committed to doing its utmost to relieve it. Since 1991, some 15 million Red Cross messages have helped families torn apart by the conflict to exchange news and keep in touch despite the many population movements. Under the Peace Agreement, the ICRC now calls upon the parties to make a concerted effort to trace, on an individual basis, all those persons still unaccounted for.

 Srebrenica and the issue of unaccounted for  

Since last July, any mention of persons missing or unaccounted for immediately brings to mind the name of Srebrenica. Thousands of families are still left without news of their loved ones. The ICRC has compiled a list of names, gathered among eyewitnesses, of 3,000 men who fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serb army during the events there. This list was submitted to the Bosnian Serb authorities in October together with a request for information. As yet the ICRC has not received any reply, and no one whose na me is included in that list has reappeared during the release process. Since July 1995, and to this day, the ICRC has had access to only 198 men from Srebrenica detained by the Bosnian Serb authorities and to be freed as part of the present process.

A further 5,000 names of people who fled from Srebrenica before it fell, seeking to cross Bosnian Serb lines and reach Bosnian government territory, were also collected by delegates. It is still unknown how many of those people have reached Bosnian government territory, and how many of them have perished during their attempt to do so.

Srebrenica is, however, not the only instance of persons unaccounted for. In early 1995, the ICRC requested and received from the highest authorities of all sides in Bosnia-Herzegovina the formal undertaking that they would support its tracing activities by providing information in reply to enquiries made by relatives and transmitted via the ICRC. Since then, more than 4,000 tracing requests have been collected by the ICRC; half of them are being processed by the ICRC's Central Tracing Agency , and the other half have already been submitted to the authorities concerned.

 Provisions in the General Framework Agreement for Peace  

Article V of Annex 7 to the General Framework Agreement stipulates that the parties shall provide information through the tracing mechanisms of the ICRC on all persons unaccounted for, and cooperate fully with the ICRC to determine their identities, whereabouts and fate.

The renewed commitment to that effect by the three parties in the Dayton accord raises new hopes of progress in resolving that grievous issue. For this purpose the ICRC is currently setting up an expert working group on persons unaccounted for; the three parties are called upon to work together by sub mitting specific enquiries to it and by providing information on enquiries conducted and the results thereof.

 3. The mass graves  

 IHL and ICRC action   

Several provisions of international humanitarian law are concerned with the treatment of mortal remains. All are prompted by the right of families to know the fate of their relatives. The ICRC has been constantly reminding the relevant authorities of all parties of their obligations in this respect, asking them for information about persons unaccounted for. It remains extremely concerned about the issue of the mass graves and, aware of its humanitarian responsibility, will continue to do its utmost to facilitate the transmission to their families of any sound information about the fate of persons killed or unaccounted for, via the mechanisms described above (see 2.    The search for persons unaccounted for ).

 Provisions in the General Framework Agreement for Peace  

Article 9 of Annex 1-A to the General Framework Agreement for Peace is a renewed attempt to address this issue. It stipulates that each party shall permit graves registration personnel to proceed to individual or mass graves for the purpose of recovering and evacuating the bodies. The ICRC which does not itself have the authority to act as a commission of enquiry, favours the rapid implementation of the above-mentioned provisions of the Dayton Accord and the ensuing efforts by the international community to establish the full truth.

 4. Zepa men held in the FRY  

The ICRC continued to carry out regular visits to some 800 men   who had fled Zepa and were interned in camps in the FRY, pending their transfer by UNHCR to other countries as refugees. To date, more than 400 of them have been received as refugees in third countries. Over the past few weeks most of those still interned have shown signs of increasing psychological strain owing to their uncertainty about their future and the excessively long wait for resettlement. The ICRC is extremely concerned about their situation and stresses the importance, for humanitarian reasons, of evacuating those refugees without delay from the camps where they are currently held.