Last year, I travelled to Bosnia and, while in Sarajevo, visited the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). This unique and highly effective organisation has revolutionised the international community’s approach to addressing the issue of missing persons. In doing so, it has made a genuine contribution to justice and peace building in the Balkans and elsewhere.
President Clinton founded the ICMP in 1996 as an ‘ad hoc’ organisation to clarify the fate of missing persons following the Balkan wars. Confronting the scale of the problem, ICMP developed state of the art DNA identification technology and has helped resolve 70 per cent of missing persons cases from the 1990s conflicts, including 7,000 of the 8,100 missing from Srebrenica.
These unparalleled results provide the means to end the desperate uncertainty that families have endured. It also provided irrefutable evidence to the domestic and international courts that hear war crimes cases, including those of Karadzic and Mladic. For the first time in history, DNA evidence is being used to convict the architects of genocide.
The distinctive expertise that the ICMP brings to this field is reflected in the growing contribution it is making beyond the Balkans. It now assists Cyprus, doubling the annual rate of identifications in less than four months. And this year, having just opened an office in Libya, the ICMP received funds from the UK (announced during the Prime Minister’s visit to Tripoli) to start DNA testing. Within one month it had identified over 100 victims of Gadhafi’s forces. The ICMP has also been working in Iraq for several years and, sadly, it is clear that in the future, Syria will also require similar assistance.
In addition to its post-conflict work, the ICMP has assisted Chile, Colombia, and South Africa in addressing missing persons cases over 19,000 individuals in the past decade.
Having achieved what it was established to do in the Western Balkans, the ICMP is gradually winding down its assistance in that region. Yet all of its programmes worldwide rely, with varied effectiveness, on a legal status recognized in a few states in the Balkans and a headquarters in Sarajevo. This is not a sustainable basis for its future.
The ICMP is not incorporated under the domestic law of any one country and is not an NGO. Its lack of formal legal status hampers the ICMP’s ability to carry out its work and as a result it was forced to close its office in Colombia, and its efforts in Libya and Iraq are put at unnecessary risk. A draft legal framework was negotiated by the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark in 2004, within which the ICMP could operate. But the document was never concluded, leaving ICMP without a permanent, internationally recognised status.
While I was initially keen for the UK to take the lead on supporting the ICMP to be based in the UK, I have been persuaded that the logical place for it to have a sustainable headquarters would be the city of The Hague, which is keen to provide the ICMP with a home. As the seat of many international justice institutions, including the International Criminal Court, The Hague would be an ideal setting for ICMP.
However, the Dutch condition is that ICMP’s legal status is put on a more sustainable footing, allowing the ICMP to operate in the Netherlands and in the often dangerous countries in which it works with the immunities it needs to protect its database of genetic information, which contains information voluntarily provided by family members of the missing. The Dutch Foreign Minister is prepared to lead a process aimed at securing that status – but only if he has the reassurance that other partner countries will support his efforts.
In order to assure the ICMP’s future, I felt it was vital that the UK gave a clear signal of support for the Dutch initiative to secure the work of this vital organisation. I therefore urged the Foreign Secretary to make the UK’s support clear, thereby making a decisive contribution to securing the ICMP’s future for the benefit of all. The Foreign Secretary was able to visit the ICMP in October last year which was an excellent signal of support, and the FCO has been actively working with the Netherlands ever since to resolve questions over the ICMP’s future status.
I am no advocate of tying the UK, as a matter of principle, into permanent financial commitments to international organizations. However, it is precisely because the ICMP has not had the luxury of permanent funding – and the fact that it has innovated and managed costs effectively at every stage in its history – that has underscored another critical reason for me to support this organization. By way of comparison, with a broad range of programmes and having developed the world’s largest human identification laboratory, the ICMP’s budget is £5 million; a very cost effective endeavour to alleviate suffering around the world.
The ICMP does not seek any permanent funding commitments. Instead, a permanent legal status will enable it to build on its exceptional track record of success in raising voluntary contributions. It is clear that an effective response to the tragedy of missing persons caused by conflict is, and will remain, a fundamental element of successful conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution. The UK has a direct interest in ensuring that present and future international peace building strategies involve missing persons as an integral element.
In order to assure the ICMP’s future, it is now time for the UK to take a leadership role in encouraging other states to support the Dutch initiative to give the ICMP a more permanent status.