Friday, 4 October 2013

Finding the missing

In the wreckage of Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre the remains of dozens of victims of last month’s terrorist attack await identification. In some cases the damage is so bad that conventional means—faces, fingerprints, teeth—may be of little use. But thanks to Interpol the Kenyan authorities are getting help from an unexpected quarter: a Bosnia-based organisation which uses DNA testing to trace victims of the Yugoslav wars.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) sounds grand but has just 150 people and a core budget of under €7m ($9.5m) a year. Zlatan Bajunovic, whom it has sent to Nairobi, lives close to Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in 1995. Their killers dug up and moved bodies from the original mass graves. Many corpses disintegrated.

Thanks to him and his colleagues most of those remains have been identified. Of the 40,000 people who went missing in the wake of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, 70% have been found. The ICMP has helped identify two-thirds of those. Families register their DNA and then look on the ICMP website to see if it matches the remains which have been found. Testing kits, of the kind Mr Bajunovic has taken to Nairobi, are cheap, quick and effective.

Now the ICMP is looking for new work. Though other outfits—in Argentina and South Africa, among other places—do similar jobs, its labs in Sarajevo are the biggest of their kind and its technology is the most advanced. It has already helped identify victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and a devastating typhoon in the Philippines in 2008.

It could do more. Up to 1m people are missing in Iraq, 10,000 in Libya, 50,000 in Syria. Hundreds of thousands remain untraced from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After years of war, even estimating numbers of missing people in the Democratic Republic of Congo is hard. The migrants whose corpses wash up on the Italian island of Lampedusa are buried in anonymous graves. In all these cases DNA, if taken and traced, could restore names to the dead and put an end to miserable uncertainty for their families.

But the ICMP needs more clout. It has neither the authority of a big organisation like Amnesty International, nor the standing enshrined in international law of the Red Cross. It is not part of the UN system. Its biggest political backer was Bill Clinton; later American administrations have been less keen. There are many multilateral bodies. Who needs another?

Now moves are afoot to boost the ICMP’s status. It has already signed a deal with the International Organisation for Migration to begin finding those missing as a result of migration and trafficking. It plans to move its headquarters to the Netherlands, where the government is offering diplomatic immunities and privileges (the labs will stay in Sarajevo). The mayor of The Hague may offer an office and some cash. Britain has promised diplomatic support. Germany is mulling over help too.

The result would be what its director, Kathryne Bomberger, calls a “birth certificate” for the ICMP. For the unknown victims of beastliness and disaster, it would mean more accurate death certificates.

Friday 4 October 2013


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