Serbia, Kosovo Must Commit to Credible Missing Persons Investigations

The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue will have maximum effect if Serbia and Kosovo’s governments commit to credibly investigating the remaining cases of missing persons from the Kosovo conflict while building on existing processes for regional cooperation.

At least 1,600 people are still missing from the Kosovo conflict. The letters signed at the White House on September 4 by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue both include a reference to the issue of missing persons, and can make a valuable contribution to the continuing effort to account for the missing.

The dialogue process, or any other effort to locate the missing from the Kosovo conflict, will have maximum effect only if it emphasises the responsibility of governments to investigate missing persons cases in line with the rule of law, and if it builds on the achievements of the Missing Persons Group, a regional mechanism established in the context of the Western Balkans Berlin Process, which is designed to help the countries of the region prepare for future EU membership.

Kosovo and Serbia participate in the Berlin Process with the other Western Balkans countries, which all face similar challenges in resolving missing persons cases.

Credible and transparent investigations are the only way to secure the rights of families of the missing to justice, truth and reparations.

Likewise, the only way to rebuild trust in war-torn societies is to ensure that governments adhere to the rule of law, that they take responsibility for finding the missing, and that they cooperate to find all missing persons, regardless of their ethnic or religious background or their role in the conflict. This approach represents an investment in peace and stability.

The International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP has been working on the issue of missing persons in the Western Balkans since 1996 and it has spearheaded the effort that has made it possible to locate more than 70 percent of the 40,000 people who went missing as a consequence of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

This has been achieved through an integrated process that brings together governments and families of the missing, makes use of sophisticated forensic and informatics capabilities, and is firmly embedded in the rule of law.

Through this process, countries throughout the region have been able to act in a coordinated and effective way, and a renewed effort to resolve the issue of missing persons from the Kosovo conflict can benefit from lessons learned across the region.

In Mostar in August 2014, Serbia joined Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina to sign the Declaration on the Role of the State in Addressing the Issue of Persons Missing as a Consequence of Armed Conflict and Human Rights Abuses, an agreement made under ICMP auspices.

The declaration recognises the centrality of resolving the fate of the missing in a manner that is commensurate with human rights and the rule of law.

In July 2018, a meeting in London at the fifth summit of the Berlin Process, EU and Western Balkans prime ministers, including those from Serbia and Kosovo, signed a joint declaration recalling the principles expressed in the Mostar Declaration and reiterating their commitment to accounting for those who are still missing.

In November 2018, at the ICMP’s headquarters in The Hague, the Western Balkans signatories to the London Declaration formally undertook to work together as the regional Missing Persons Group, MPG.

The MPG reported to the Poznan Summit of the Berlin Process in July 2019. Under its framework plan, regional governments acknowledge their responsibility to conduct official, adequate and transparent investigations of missing persons cases as a fundamental element in upholding the rule of law.

One of the challenges that MPG members face is the interrelated issue of misidentifications based on traditional (non-DNA) methods of identification and NN (unidentified) cases of human remains. This issue affects not only Kosovo and Serbia, but also Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

In Serbia, the Prosecutor’s Office of the War Crimes Chamber of the Belgrade District Court has led investigations. Since 2001, following an agreement with ICMP, DNA testing has been applied uniformly. As a result, more than 900 missing persons from the Kosovo conflict who had been buried in clandestine graves in Serbia have been accurately identified, and the remains have been returned to their loved ones in Kosovo.

Remains recovered in Serbia were from the very beginning identified only using DNA, not traditional methods. The overall match rate of profiles from Serbia-recovered remains to reference samples provided by families of the missing to ICMP is 97.2 per cent. By contrast, profiles from remains recovered in Kosovo (where traditional identification methods were used before ICMP became part of the process) match at a rate of only 68.9 per cent.

This disparity points to a potential misidentification of cases exhumed on the territory of Kosovo based on non-DNA methods.

Misidentifications result in a high number of unidentified cases stored in mortuaries. Today as many as 400 cases of unidentified human remains excavated two decades ago are held in the Pristina Mortuary. These remains may belong to people whose families believe they have buried their relatives, but who have in fact buried someone else.

Continued inclusion of the missing persons process related to the Kosovo conflict in the ongoing work in the region to account for the 12,000 people still missing from the conflicts, including potential cases of misidentifications, would help ensure that EU and US initiatives benefit from regional efforts that are already underway to maintain and enhance cooperation among states in the region.

Addressing the issue of the missing must be based on government responsibility and the rule of law as an indispensable element in building trust between Belgrade and Pristina and ensuring that families of the missing from all communities have confidence in the missing persons process.

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