July 11 marks 25 years since the Srebrenica Genocide. Unfortunately, in the last quarter of a century this horrific case has not been an isolated event. In 2020, people are going missing in the tens of thousands — as a result of conflicts, disasters, trafficking and irregular migration.
Following the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organization I have chaired for almost a decade, developed a unique and effective strategy to account for those who are missing and, today, it is helping families and governments to account for those who have disappeared. Where crime and/or conflict are involved, the main goal is to bring those responsible to justice.
This process is firmly premised on delivering justice — for survivors and for society as a whole. Without truth there cannot be justice, and to find the truth you have to find the missing.
The Srebrenica Genocide took place in the final weeks of a three-and-a-half-year conflict. In the months after the massacre, the perpetrators returned to the mass graves and, using diggers and bulldozers, moved the bodies to secondary and tertiary sites in an attempt to conceal evidence. The consequence was that body parts were scattered in different mass graves across a wide area of eastern Bosnia.
A public denial that a massacre had taken place followed. As graves began to be uncovered in the years after the end of the war, the narrative of denial was adjusted, acknowledging that large numbers of people had been killed, but, the argument went, in combat as part of a military retreat. This narrative has been dismantled in a series of war-crimes trials that have established the number of victims, where they were killed, how they were killed, by whom and on whose orders. The Srebrenica Genocide is not a matter of opinion but of fact.
Since the victims were buried and then reburied, conventional methods of identifying the dead — using distinguishing features or their clothing — could not be applied. In 2000, following consultations with families of the missing, government authorities and others, ICMP pioneered a new approach that utilized advanced computer software to compare DNA from unidentified human remains with DNA from relatives of the missing. The results made it possible to account for more than 70 percent of those who went missing during the conflict, including 7,000 of the 8,000 Srebrenica victims.
ICMP is now working with Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS), a DNA analysis technique that makes it possible to test bone samples that are badly burned or otherwise highly degraded, and to compare DNA profiles from unidentified human remains with those of more distant relatives to establish conclusive kinship matches. MPS significantly increases the amount of genetic information that can be derived from a single biological sample and requires only very short intact fragments of DNA.
These technological advances are not a panacea — they are significant enhancement of a complex but well-established process through which large numbers of missing persons can be accounted for — they refute the (often self-serving) argument that the past should remain buried — an approach that is unacceptable on moral, practical and legal grounds.
Governments have legal obligations to account for the missing, including those who go missing on their territory even when they are not citizens — something that has to be kept to the fore as developed countries struggle to address the political and moral challenges posed by mass migration.
As we mark the 25th anniversary of Srebrenica, there will be — undoubtedly sincere — cries of “never again.” ICMP’s experience, in the western Balkans and elsewhere, shows that while the propensity to commit outrages such as the Srebrenica Genocide has not diminished in the last 25 years, the capacity of governments and victims to address such outrages has increased — through effective forensic strategies and the rigorous and informed application of the law. This is not first and foremost about bringing comfort to survivors — it is about bringing justice, to survivors and to society.
It has taken a quarter of a century to bring a measure of justice to the survivors of Srebrenica. We must and we can ensure that justice is delivered more timely elsewhere. That would be a fitting tribute to those who were murdered in the forests and townships of eastern Bosnia in that blood-soaked summer 25 years ago.
Tom Miller has been chair of the International Commission on Missing Persons since 2011.