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Bosnia: UN Urges Progress on Disappeared

Working group sets out areas where efforts need to be improved.
By Marija Arnautovic

The Bosnian authorities have been urged by a draft United Nations report to do more to discover the fate of thousands who went missing during the Bosnian war, which ended fifteen years ago.

The final version of the preliminary report from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011.

According to the UN data, between 28,000 and 30,000 people disappeared in Bosnia during its 1992-95 war. It has been estimated that a third have yet to be accounted for.

Presenting their preliminary report last week, UN rapporteurs emphasised that establishing a central database on missing persons should be a priority for the Bosnian authorities dealing with this issue.

“This should be done as soon as possible, along with the data on nationality of the missing persons. This would improve transparency and accuracy, as well as the certainty of the missing persons’ identity, which would contribute to a decrease in the politicisation of the issue,” said Jeremy Sarkin, the UN working group’s chairperson at the presentation in Sarajevo.

This database was envisaged by the law on missing persons adopted by the Bosnian state parliament in 2004, but there has yet to be any progress on the matter.

UN representatives said Bosnia’s principal communities have different attitudes towards a number of issues related to missing persons. “Each side claims there is discrimination against them and their community,” Sarkin said.

According to the UN preliminary report, finding mass graves in Bosnia is getting harder as time passes. Over the last 15 years, representatives of various commissions for missing persons have found over 5,000 locations with mass or individual graves. Around 25,000 human remains have been discovered at these locations.

Most of the sites were in eastern Bosnia, around Foca, Visegrad, Vlasenica, Rudo, Cajnice, Zvornik, Srebrenica and Bratunac.

Representatives of the UN working group said that the programme of witness protection should be strengthened, so that more people would offer information about mass grave locations.

They added that protection and support should also be offered to missing persons’ family members who are often threatened, intimidated and even blackmailed.

According to the UN preliminary report, the number of prosecutors working on exhumations and the processing of war crimes cases is extremely small. The working group recommended that more prosecutors should be appointed at local levels, in order to speed up investigations.

“Victims’ family members should be informed more regularly on investigations, their findings, as well as court proceedings. Courts at all levels should have better communication with the public, especially with family members of missing persons,” Sarkin said.

UN representatives suggested that some other mechanisms should be explored that could help determine the truth about past events, such as establishing local investigation commissions. They also called for Bosnia’s state strategy on transitional justice to be endorsed and financially supported by local authorities.

Preparation of this strategy started in February this year, with the help of UN Development Programme. It aims to come up with solutions to improve the system of reparations for victims and the efficiency of war crimes prosecutions.

The UN working group pointed out that a great number of war crimes suspects are still at large, many of them living next to their victims. Criminal laws at entity levels have not been harmonised yet, which makes the processing of cases of enforced disappearances as crimes against humanity more difficult.

“Persons charged with or sentenced for grave crimes, especially crimes of enforced disappearance, should be suspended from all public positions,” Sarkin said.

When it comes to reparations, a certain number of laws at entity level prescribe social support for civilian victims of war or soldiers, but there is no general provision on reparations. The UN working group pointed out that many people did not even know this law existed, while others have found it very difficult to exercise these rights.

The Bosnina law on missing persons adopted in 2004 envisaged establishing a fund to support family members of missing persons, but this never happened. According to Sarkin, establishing this fund should also be on top of the Bosnian list of priorities.

The UN working group recommended to the Bosnian authorities that August 30, International Day of the Disappeared, should be marked as a remembrance day for all missing persons in Bosnia.

This way all victims of enforced or involuntary disappearances would be remembered, regardless of their nationality, the working group representatives said.

They also pointed out that solving cases of missing persons should be a priority in European integration talks between Bosnia and the EU.

Marija Arnautovic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

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