Twenty years ago this month, at the G-7 summit in Lyon, when US President Bill Clinton proposed the establishment of the International Commission on Missing Persons, the prospects for a sustained and effective effort to account for the tens of thousands of missing people in former Yugoslavia seemed poor. Two decades on, an integrated system combining the establishment of dedicated institutions and legislation to address the issue of the missing, a rule of law approach, engagement of the families of the missing, and modern scientific methods has delivered extraordinary results.
When the White House Press release announced the establishment of the International Commission on Missing Persons on 29 June 1996, there were 40,000 people missing in the Western Balkans and there was little willingness among the new authorities to devote resources to this issue on an objective, non-partisan basis.
At the same time, there were multiple separate and uncoordinated efforts underway in different parts of the region, applying different methodologies and sometimes very questionable professional standards.
In these circumstances the number of identifications was small, and progress was slow. As a result, many families had to live for years with the ambiguous loss of a loved one. For these families the normal human process of grief was placed in suspended animation.
And this was not only a matter of personal and individual pain. The fact that so many people were missing was an obstacle to building a just peace.
After a conflict, or a period of systemic abuse of human rights, when large numbers of people cannot be accounted for, the rule of law is challenged in a fundamental way. Citizens rightly question the credibility of authorities that cannot or will not establish what happened to thousands of their fellow citizens and who cannot or will not take steps to bring those responsible for disappearances to justice.
Finding the missing is about helping survivors, but it is also about upholding the rule of law; it is about ensuring that those who were responsible are held to account. It is about preventing any attempt to cover up the crime or to deny that it happened.
Clandestine graves are crime scenes. They contain evidence that can be used in court. Accounting for the missing helps citizens access their right to truth, justice, and reparation.
This doesnt apply only to citizens who have lost family members. It applies to all citizens because as long as some are denied justice, all are denied justice.
Under domestic and international law, survivors have a right to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones. The authorities do not choose to support efforts to account for the missing: they are obliged to support these efforts. Police, judicial officials and others from the municipal counter-clerk to the head of government have a mandatory obligation to support families of the missing.
More than 20 years after the fall of the communist regime in Albania, the exact number of persons who went missing between 1945 and 1991 remains unclear, though the figure is believed to be in the region of 6,000. The Albanian authorities have adopted more than 24 legislative acts since 1991 addressing the issue of victims of the former regime, but uncertainty remains about the fate of missing persons and the location of gravesites, and little has been done to give concrete assistance to the families of the missing.
In 2006, Parliament adopted a resolution on dealing with the legacy of the Communist era, which calls among other things for support for a fund for locating the missing and killed with or without trial for political purposes.
In April 2010, following in invitation from the Albanian Government regular contact with the Albanian Government was initiated. ICMP also reached out to human rights NGOs and families of missing persons and offered technical assistance to address the issue. The Albanian authorities, in 2015, formally invited ICMP to provide assistance in institution building and technical assistance in identification of remains through the use of ICMP's standing capacity to use DNA to assist in large-scale identifications.
ICMP is working with the Albanian authorities to assist them in accounting for the missing from the Communist era.
This will include measures to locate and excavate clandestine gravesites; develop relevant domestic legislation; establish central records and databases; ensure the engagement of victims groups, families of the missing and civil society; and establish an integrated scientific process for locating, recovering and identifying missing persons, incorporating DNA-based identification processes.
This list is extensive, but it is targeted and practical and implementing it would significantly boost the possibility of identifying more of the missing. As ICMP marks its 20th anniversary, this outcome remains the central focus of all our activities.
*Kathryne Bomberger is Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons