International Day of the Disappeared is not an abstract commemoration of a far off event. Many around us are living with a terrible curse, not only of losing a loved one, but of not being able to put them and their memory to rest. In my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), I’ve met many families who are in this position and heard their stories of ongoing pain and loss. In BiH and neighbouring countries, 11,000 people still remain to be found, and identified. The UK, for its part, continues to support this work, and hold governments to their commitments to do so too.
But the search for the missing has also represented a remarkable success. Thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of families of those who disappeared, approximately 70% of the 40,000 who disappeared during the 1990s conflicts have been identified. New scientific techniques, and in particular the use of DNA evidence, have also played an important role. In this vital but difficult work, the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which the UK continues to support, has led the way, working with BiH’s Missing Persons Institute. How have they done so?
First, some explanations. DNA, or Deoxyribonucleic Acid, is the molecule that contains the genetic code of living organisms (including animals and plants). DNA is found in almost every cell or tissue in the human body, such as the skin, hair follicles, saliva, blood and bones. Laboratory techniques are used to extract a “DNA profile” from the remains of unidentified deceased missing persons. This profile is then compared to a secure database of DNA profiles from family members of the missing to find matches.
The ICMP DNA Laboratory is the world’s largest and most successful missing persons DNA laboratory, having contributed to the identification of around 20,000 persons worldwide. It has highly specialized capabilities in obtaining DNA results from challenging cases, and in making identifications with the use of samples from family members of the missing.
DNA identification techniques to resolve the fate of missing persons can be crucial in the criminal trials of the perpetrators. ICMP evidence has played a role in numerous trials conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and in domestic trials in the Bosnia and Herzegovina State Court. DNA evidence presented at these trials related not only to thousands of individual identifications, but to link primary and secondary graves, proving attempts to hide the fate of those killed.
Like any scientific endeavor, the techniques do not stand still. Supported by the UK Government, ICMP is developing next generation technology for DNA testing to identify missing persons, which provides much more DNA information than standard DNA testing, including with even distant relatives, and should help to establish more identities of missing persons in the Western Balkans and worldwide.
Ultimately, this all comes back to the painful loss of an irreplaceable loved one. As we have seen all across this region, there can be no rest until the missing are found. All governments have a role to play, and have committed to better cooperation in this search. And the UK firmly believes that by continuing to support families’ associations, the ICMP, and the development of even better identification techniques, we will help in the search for both justice and peace.