GENEVA (11July 2014) – There is an urgent need for new national and regional strategies and a renewed commitment at the highest political level to address the question of enforced disappearances and missing persons in Western Balkans, said the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances at the end of an official 16-day visit to Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo* and Montenegro.
“Since the war, the fate and whereabouts of thousands of victims of enforced disappearances and of missing persons was established. Nevertheless, in the last few years the progress achieved in the search of those missing in the region has significantly slowed down,” the human rights experts said.
“New initiatives and strategies must be devised and implemented,” they stressed.
“We recognized the achievements, but significant challenges still remain many years after the conflicts, to fulfil the right to truth, justice and reparation for victims,” they said, noting a number of common and cross-cutting issues among the places visited. “Strengthened cooperation and a new impetus are needed at the regional level.”
The experts called for urgent and concrete actions “as decades after the conclusion of the conflicts too many relatives are passing away without knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.” They warned that much of the evidence and available information is getting lost as time passes by.
“In many areas, bilateral or multi-lateral cooperation is quite effective at the working and technical level,” they noted. “However, this cooperation is much less fluid at higher political levels, where an enduring stalemate hampers the implementation of regional cooperative solutions.”
“There will be no substantive progress unless the question of the missing is depoliticized with a clear and unconditional commitment at the highest level to fully cooperate towards its solution, and to give the rights of victims and their relatives top priority,” they emphasized.
The Working Group also stressed that “full and transparent exchange of information and data is essential, not only to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those still unaccounted for and guarantee the right to truth and justice of victims, but also to build trust and confidence among all parties involved.”
“All archives where information could be available should be opened and accessible, including those in the hands of other Governments and international actors and institutions,” they said. “One concrete immediate step would be the establishment of a regional database of missing persons, which would serve as a basis for a common approach to move the issue forward.”
The experts also drew attention to the need for a review of identification work carried out by traditional means, considering the significant number of potential misidentifications. “Hundreds of unidentified bodies in the morgues in the whole region and unidentified DNA samples seem to confirm the troublesome concern that errors occurred in the traditional identification process,” they noted.
“Both in the search and identification of the missing and in the investigation, prosecution and conviction of war criminals, progress is hampered by the fact that available information and evidence is often not shared across borders, the presence of the alleged perpetrators in another country and the obstacles to prosecute them therein as well as the lack of enough protection to witnesses or incentives to encourage persons to provide more information,” they said.
The Working Group highlighted that the absence in existing legal systems of an autonomous crime of enforced disappearance is another common gap in the region. “We recommend to swiftly include such crime in the domestic criminal codes,” they said, noting that an encompassing framework for compensation and reparation of the victims and their relatives is also needed.
“While we recognize that regional cooperation is indispensable, national authorities and institutions still need to do more,” they added. “Lack of cooperation could limit the prospects of success but does not relieve national authorities from adopting all the necessary measures as required by the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in order to guarantee the rights to justice, truth and reparation.”
“We also recommend the holding of a high-level regional conference where all parties involved should renew their commitment to solve the issue of missing persons and come up with concrete and time-bound actions,” the experts concluded.
The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will report on the visits to the Human Rights Council in 2015.
*Reference to Kosovo should be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1244
The Working Group is comprised of five independent experts from all regions of the world. The Chair-Rapporteur is Mr. Ariel Dulitzky (Argentina) and the Vice-Chair is Mr. Osman El-Hajjé (Lebanon). The other members are Ms. Jasminka Dzumhur (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ms. Houria Es Slami (Morocco) and Mr. Olivier de Frouville (France).
The Working Group was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1980 to assist families in determining the fate and whereabouts of disappeared relatives. It endeavours to establish a channel of communication between the families and the Governments concerned, to ensure that individual cases are investigated, with the objective of clarifying the whereabouts of persons who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law. In view of the Working Group's humanitarian mandate, clarification occurs when the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person are clearly established. The Working Group continues to address cases of disappearances until they are resolved. It also provides assistance in the implementation by States of the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. For more information, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Disappearances/Pages/DisappearancesIndex.aspx