There is no political will to solve the problem of missing persons

Photo: Archive of the Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo

Abductions and forced disappearances are almost regularly used as a strategy for spreading terror during conflicts or by dictatorships. Forced disappearances have become a global problem and they are not limited to a certain region of the world, but occur in almost all conflicts, even internal ones, and they are also used as a method of repression against political opponents. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared during conflicts or periods of repression in dozens of countries around the world. 

Which is why on 21 December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly expressed in a resolution great worry for the rise of forced disappearances in different regions of the world, including arrests, detainment and abductions. In the same resolution the General Assembly complimented the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and decided to proclaim 30 August as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

In Article 2 of the Convention, Enforced Disappearance is defined as arrests, detainment, abduction or any other kind of deprivation of liberty by government agents or persons or groups acting with authority, support or consent of the government, followed by a denial of said deprivation of liberty or concealing the fate or whereabouts of a missing person, which puts such a person outside the protection of the law. The convention deals with, in addition to enforced disappearances, measures which signatory countries must take in order to uncover the fates of missing persons, prosecute those responsible for the abductions and enforced disappearances as well as offer reparations or compensation to the victims and their families. The signatory countries of the convention are also obligated to collaborate with other countries in prosecuting or extraditing offenders as well as providing help for the victims of enforced disappearances or locating and returning their remains. All countries which emerged from the breakup of former Yugoslavia, who are members of UN, are signees of the convention, while Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro ratified it.

Apart from the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance there are other international instruments which protect the rights of families of the missing persons, especially the right to know the fate of their missing family member. This is guaranteed by the Geneva Convention from 1949, as well as its additional protocols from 1977. Also, the countries in the region have passed or are in the process of passing a law on missing persons. Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted the Law on Missing Persons as early as 2004, Kosovo in 2011, while Croatia adopted the Law on Missing Persons in the Homeland War in 2019. Serbia appointed a working group to develop a Draft of the Law on Forced Missing Persons, the first draft of which is expected by the end of this year.

It is estimated that around 40000 persons are missing as a result of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Of which 30.000 are missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, around 6500 disappeared during the conflict in Croatia and around 4500 disappeared during or in connection with the conflict in Kosovo. Today, 30 years after the beginning of the breakup of former Yugoslavia and 22 years after the end of the conflict in Kosovo, around 10000 people are still missing. Even though it could be considered a success that the fate of 75% of the total number of reported missing persons has been uncovered, ten thousand families and hundreds of thousands of close relatives are still searching for their loved ones and for the truth. The question of missing persons in former Yugoslavia is rightfully still considered an urgent legacy of the nineties. Of course, the solution to this question is also a burden for all other processes of dealing with the past, which should bring reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the countries which emerged from the breakup of former Yugoslavia did not do enough on their part in implementing the provisions from international, as well as their own – domestic, instruments listed at the beginning of this text, which refer to the issue of missing persons. Not enough has been done to uncover the fate of the missing persons, prosecute those responsible for the abductions and forced disappearances, or offer reparations and compensation   (material and symbolic) to the victims and their families, as well as to give the victims back their dignity. Although representatives of institutions formally state that shedding light on the fate of missing persons is considered a humanitarian issue, this simply is not true because in practice this is obviously a very politicized issue. This is most obvious in the cases of Kosovo and Serbia. Some 15 to 20 years were necessary to uncover certain mass graves in Serbia, such as the one in Rudnica, which was discovered in 2014, or the one in Kiževak which was discovered in 2020. The remains of 54 Kosovo Albanians were found in the first one, and nine in the second. It’s hard to believe that the authorities in Serbia didn’t know about the existence of these mass graves, and that they didn’t know the exact locations. After all, the mere act of hiding these bodies could not have been done without the knowledge of those in power. Nevertheless, more than 15 years passed for those locations to be found. On the other hand, the Kosovo government accuse the Serbian side of being responsible for all the missing person cases in Kosovo, including Serbs, who number over 400. There is no indication that the authorities in Kosovo are initiating any kind of activity toward uncovering the truth about missing Serbs in Kosovo, or locating mass graves where the bodies of Serbs were buried. The excuse of the Kosovo side is that there is no archive containing information regarding the destiny of missing Serbs, meanwhile forgetting that it is their responsibility to conduct investigations and find the remains of missing Serbs and others buried in secret locations in Kosovo. While the civil society was satisfied that the topic of missing persons was covered in the dialogue agenda between Kosovo and Serbia, they quickly became disappointed. Namely, after the last meeting within the Brussels dialogue, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, stated that Serbia is ready to investigate every location on the territory of Serbia that the Kosovo side suspects might contain a mass grave. Of course, the Kosovo side cannot possibly know where the mass graves are located in Serbia, that is something that the Serbian authorities know. The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, demanded that the head of the Serbian government commission on missing persons be replaced, because he was part of the Serbian state apparatus in 1990. These statements sufficiently show the frivolity and lack of political will on both sides to take responsibility and treat the issue of missing persons as a humanitarian issue. The relationship towards the victims is illustrated in the locations of the mass graves in the saddest possible way. No monuments were placed at the locations of uncovered mass graves, no memorial plaque or any sign of respect for the victims. The situation is the same in Kosovo, the locations of mass graves are mostly unmarked. This practice cannot restore dignity to the victims and their families.

As it is, it seems that we will yet again hear the usual statements of government representatives at this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, and their verbal support to the families of missing persons, but they will not be reflected on specific steps taken in solving the fates of the those who have disappeared, prosecuting those responsible for these crimes, offering appropriate reparations for victims and the return of dignity to victims and their families.

Bekim Blakaj,Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo (HLC Kosovo), studied at the Faculty of Organizational Sciences in Belgrade. Since 2000, he has been involved in the work of the HLC Kosovo, first as a researcher and later as the coordinator of the “Kosovo Memory Book” project. Since 2006, he has been the head of the HLC Kosovo. He conducted a large number of interviews with survivors and family members of Kosovo victims from all ethnic groups. He is especially dedicated to the field of transitional justice and human rights. Bekim is the author and co-author of numerous publications and research studies on these topics. He is a welcome guest at many universities, where he gives lectures in the field of transitional justice.

Translated by: Luna Đorđević