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Institute for Missing Persons gives hope for peace in the Balkans

Archaeologist and research fellow in risk management and societal safety at the University of Stavanger in Norway, Kirsten Juhl, has dug out bodies from mass graves in the former Yugoslavia. Now she is researching how peace can finally take hold.

The wars in the Balkans in the 1990s resulted in about 40 000 people going missing, of those, as many as 30 000 in Bosnia-Herzegovina alone. As early as 1992, the UN expert committee for the former Yugoslavia pointed out that severe crimes against humanity were being committed, a vast number of human rights violations and unlawful executions were carried out, which resulted in large number of mass graves.

This led to the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in 1993. From 1996 to 2001, the tribunal investigated a number of mass graves. The work has since been followed up by local authorities with help from The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

In her doctorate, she explores the conditions for solving the problems in the region so that a basis can be created for societal safety in The Balkans. In the former Yugoslavia, this safety is fragile. She is looking at, among other things, the law regarding missing persons which was passed in 2004 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the state institute for missing persons, which was formally established in 2005, but which has only just started to function this year – in 2008 – thirteen years after peace.

"The local commissions for missing persons have always just excavated "their own". The one commission – in the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina - has searched for Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, while the second commission – in the Republika Srpska – has searched for Bosnian Serbs. This means that the commissions for all these years since peace was declared, have contributed to a polarisation and distrust between the groups," Ms Juhl explains.

She is afraid the ethnic oppositions have been maintained in such a way that there is a real danger that there will be no safety in future. She thinks the new state institute for missing persons can help the Balkans out of the social trap.

"The various groups now need to work closely in the same institute, and in this work, it isn't possible to consider ethnicity or group. When work is lifted from the autonomous units to a common institute at state level, the Bosniak, the Serbian and the Croatian director have to work together. They have to speak with one voice if they are to have any credibility". As Ms Juhl explains, the creation of the Institute for Missing Persons is therefore a huge gain for peace and societal safety.

"So far it has been a power struggle as regards information. The Serbian victims get no information from the Federation and the Republika Srpska gives little information back. We are talking about both mistrust and downright obstruction. With the Institute for Missing Persons it will now hopefully be harder for the ethnic authorities to not want to share information", she says. They can no longer be sure that it is "the others" and not their own they create obstructions for.

Ms Juhl thinks it is imperative that the Institute manages to create mutual trust and a will to co-operate among the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so that they start to think and talk about events in a different way.

"They have to go from an "I'm just looking for my people" to an "everyone should find everyone" attitude."

She points out that there is an enormous challenge here in terms of changing the public discourse from revolving around ethnicity to revolving around human rights. She hope that the Institute for Missing Persons succeeds in creating trust between groups, so that no-one in future will think of human rights violations as a valid way of solving issues.

Karen Anne Okstad | fa
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