Just Access

Episode 7 - Evolution of Missing Persons from a Humanitarian to a Human Rights Issue

March 06, 2023 Just Access Season 1 Episode 7
Just Access
Episode 7 - Evolution of Missing Persons from a Humanitarian to a Human Rights Issue
Show Notes Transcript

In this Episode we introduce you to Kathryne Bomberger, the Director General of the International Commission on Missing Persons - the ICMP, and talk about ICMP's work and Kathryn's role at the organization. We focuse on how the issue of missing persons evolved over time from a humanitarian to a human rights issue, how the ICMP was created and the challenges faced on its journey.

For more on the ICMP go to: https://www.icmp.int/

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Episode 5.1. - Kathryne Bomberger -ICMP



[00:00:00] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access! In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people: legal experts, academics and human rights advocates. We explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I'm Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access. Over the next two episodes, I speak with Katheryne Bamberger.

[00:00:30] She is the Director General of the International Commission on Missing Persons - the ICMP, which is based in the Hague. In this first episode, we focus on introducing Kathryne, the ICMP's work and her role at the organization. In the second episode, we'll focus on the problem of missing persons as a human rights issue and learn from Kathryne's expertise on the subject.

[00:00:53] Hope you enjoy the conversation.


[00:00:56] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Can you please start us off introducing yourself a little bit? Tell us about your background. How did you come to join the ICMP? 

[00:01:06] Kathryne Bomberger: Well, my name is Katherine Berger and I'm the Director General of the International Commission on Missing Persons. I joined ICMP in 1998. I was 12 years old. That's a joke. So this was a very, very long time ago. So I've been doing this work now for ICMP for 24 years. The organization itself is about 26 years. 

[00:01:27] We were a small group of people when I joined, but the commission itself was actually created by President Clinton in 1996, following the cessation of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. And I was about to go to Rwanda where I was looking at a job to deal with human rights, having just come back from Haiti, where I worked for the United Nations, working on human rights issues and also having worked, for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe doing human rights work.

[00:01:57] So human rights work was a relatively new field at that time. Now you can study it. That wasn't something I studied. I studied history and then international relations. I wish it was something I had studied previously because it's a new and emerging and extremely important field. And addressing the issue of missing persons as a human rights issue was a relatively novel concept, which I came to appreciate much later, because in fact, when I started at ICMP, it was largely seen as a humanitarian issue. So I think it's not only I have evolved, in terms of how to understand the issue, but the world has evolved in it's understanding of this issue and understanding now that it's a global issue. 

[00:02:39] Anyway, going back in time to 1998, I had committed to doing this - somebody at the State Department had said there's this job available in Bosnia where I had been before, it's dealing with missing persons, and I thought, oh, that's a terribly sad issue, I don't wanna do that, but you know, of course its links to human rights intrigued me and they said it would only be for about six months. You know, we would establish something called a Missing Person's Institute in Bosnia and Herzegovina within six months and the job would be over. So I thought, no, that's good. That would free me up to do other things. And here I am all these years later.

[00:03:14] So in fact, it didn't take six months, it took until 2005 to create a Missing Person's Institute in Bosnia and Herzegovina so that was a really long, long process, which, you know, all of us put our heart and soul into to get it done, and it's been going on since then. And today, not only are we working in the Western Balkans still, where I'm happy to say over 75% of the 40,000 people who went missing during the conflicts that took place during that time have now been accounted for, which is unprecedented. But we're now working globally. Right now we're talking to Canada about dealing with indigenous communities who went missing as a result of the residential schools killings and abuses that took place in Canada over the last hundred years. 

[00:04:00] We're working elsewhere in the Western hemisphere. I just came back from Mexico, which has about 130,000 people missing, but we'll probably get into that in the rest of the interview. So, the issue is a global one, and it's been fascinating and I, there's never been a dull moment since I joined in 1996. Some irritating ones, but never, never dull.

[00:04:20] Dr. Miranda Melcher: It certainly doesn't sound like it! It sounds like a quite a massive task and commitment, which I think we probably will get into. And so to start that off and to give us a little bit more of a foundation, especially given the evolution of the issue, as you said, from humanitarian to human rights, from one place to many places, how might you introduce the work or the goals of the ICMP to someone that might not be familiar with it?

[00:04:47] Kathryne Bomberger: Yeah, having just spoken to somebody from the Cree nation yesterday, in Canada, I think the way to describe this the elevator version, would be that states are responsible for finding missing persons and investigating their disappearances, and once we understand and appreciate that, then I think you understand all the complexities that go with this issue because that requires political will on the part of the state.

[00:05:14] That means that certain countries are not ready yet, for example, Syria today with Asaad still in power and ISIS is still lurking around, there's no political will at the moment to find the over 130,000 people still who are missing from Syria. But in cases where there is political will to find them, then you can build capacity within the state to do so.

[00:05:36] So I think that's really lesson number one. Lesson two is that, so that means it's a human rights issue - so states have to find missing persons, investigate their disappearances in line with human rights, and hold those who are responsible to account. The second issue is that families of the missing want many things - I mean, closure - maybe, justice - another one, we're all different. We're all human beings, we have different wants, different needs. We have different relationships with the people who went missing. There could be women, for example in Middle Eastern countries where we worked, who were part of arranged marriages, so finding the missing husband may not necessarily be something that they're looking for.

[00:06:17] They may also be looking at, this could be anywhere in the world, but they are looking for securing their human rights, securing inheritance rights, securing custody rights of their children, for example. So there may be many, many outcomes regarding missing persons cases. Having worked in Srebrenica for a very long time and knowing the women of Srebrenica, you know, so well, who are my friends at this point, I don't think closure is something in the offing. I think this will be something that will traumatize them for the rest of their lives. So while families may want different things, it's the state that is responsible in the end to secure those rights, no matter what citizens or non-citizens want, they're there to secure human rights to justice, to truth, and to reparation. So that's just the quick version in a nutshell.

[00:07:07] Dr. Miranda Melcher: In a nutshell is brilliant! Thank you for that. Cuz of course we're now going to get into some more details about the work of the organization and of course your work within it, which has been quite extensive as you've already discussed a little bit. So I'm wondering if you can kind of take us into your daily work, I suppose. What does your work within the organization look like now? What have you done over the years? You know, the idea of holding states to account conjures up images of international halls and conference rooms, but of course, Sarajevo women conjures up rather a different picture of day to day activities. So can you tell us a bit about some of the things that you've done in the organisation?

[00:07:50] Kathryne Bomberger: The exciting thing about being part of a small organization is you get to do everything. From procurement to writing, drafting letters to having, you know, meetings with royalty, to having meetings with families of the missing, to every, you know, element of this job. So I think that's what's really nice about working for a small organization. You get to do much, much more. Having worked for the UN and working, you know, for bigger organizations, you're really a cog in the wheel and you don't really get to drive it. And I think that's, you know, having worked for the UN and the OSCE and even the United States Senate, you are a small person within, or a small fish, let's say, within a big pond.

[00:08:28] So, being in a small pond, and being a big fish, to use the metaphor, it allows you to do so much more. And I think also building something new is very exciting. And none of this was I aware of in 1998 when I took on this job, and nor was this a goal. So all of this happened as it was happening in real time.

[00:08:49] And then realizing where we were and what we were doing, you know, was happening simultaneously and where to take this. So this has been hugely exciting. When we started the work, there were really temporal and geographic limitations to our work, I mean, we were established at a G7 Summit by President Clinton, but as an international organization, so we were always equivalent to an intergovernmental organization - we were never an NGO, which is extremely important, so governments always participated in our work, which meant that we had to get states to not only work on this issue in the areas where we work, like Bosnia and Herzegovina or what eventually became Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, etc., but also we had to get the support of other states politically to help us with this work.

[00:09:40] And the 1990s were a very different time than today. I think a little bit more so as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. But the international community was more of a community, let's say, in the 1990s than it is today. So having that support of multiple states was a big deal at that time and getting them to help us.

[00:10:00] But I think there's so many things, so many threads to this. I mean, you know, from, as you say, the international conferences to drinking Shlivovica with, you know, those that may have been responsible for war crimes, to get them to push and to negotiate and to move this process - it's no small feat, to working with families of the missing who are hugely traumatized, who, I mean, it's remarkable that they still continue to go on, but they have the strength and the courage not only to continue living, but to fight for answers and to fight for their rights, is just overwhelming. And to help unite them to, you know, find common cause with those that may come from families that were, you know, the aggressors or perpetrators. So all of these things, you know, building states capacities of bringing families of the missing together, you know, getting them to harmonize their work together, takes... I think maybe that's something I enjoy, is bringing people together and getting them to harmonize and to find common solutions, as a measure towards building peace and security. Cause in the end, that's another thing I think that really dawned on us is how much this issue contributes to sustainable peace.

[00:11:16] Not by doing it for people, but by help facilitating them, doing it themselves, that they comply with the law, that it becomes their decision to work together, to create these institutions, to create legislation. But to ensure that all of these align with international law, I mean, because international law also prescribes these rights.

[00:11:37] So I don't know. I'm going on and on, but I mean, there's so many things cuz it has been 24 years and I've been thinking, I don't even know how to write a CV at this point. I haven't done it because there's too many things to write down because it's all been quite meaningful.

[00:11:54] Dr. Miranda Melcher: I mean, that's a very good problem to have, to not have dull moments and engage in meaningful things. I'd love to ask kind of specifically about this idea of facilitating and working with the different groups to come to solutions, particularly through the lens of courts, cuz that is: a) not always something we think of being about solutions, or at least not coming together for solutions - it's often more adversarial; and we also know that international law and national law going together can also not always be the easiest thing, as you've just alluded to. So how does the ICMP do that sort of facilitation help, particularly around domestic courts, international courts? What is the role of the ICMP in that entangled process?

[00:12:44] Kathryne Bomberger: That's a very good question, where to begin? So as you recall, Benjamin Disraeli, I think, said: "Јustice is truth in action." So by ensuring that the truth becomes public, that states themselves provide public information that is factual, that is credible, that is truthful to citizens, is important. And one way to exemplify this is to ensure that this truth is provided as evidence in courts. And I think that's been another really important part of our job.

[00:13:19] In 1996 when ICMP was created, it was actually created initially by the International Committee for the Red Cross and the State Department - this strange marriage between the two, we're kind of the outcome of this strange marriage between the two. And there was a very humanitarian look at the issue at that point: that families want closure, that you deal with the debt with dignity, that warring parties share information. But the war had ended in 1996. I mean, the peace agreement was signed at the very end of 1995, and you were no longer dealing with warring parties, but with states. And states are here to preserve rights, including justice. And this, I mean, eventually evolved, I think it was the first time really, and really with ICMP's work that number one, we used DNA as a first line of evidence to ascertain the scientific identity of a missing person; and with Srebrenica we were able to ascertain the scientific identity of people missing from a genocide with complete accuracy. 

[00:14:19] So this was amazing. So about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed in a number of days. If you haven't seen "Quo Vadis, Aida?" you should, it's a very good film about Srebrenica. The bodies were, you know, once executed, buried in mass graves along Eastern Bosnia, then removed to cover up the evidence with heavy machinery. Through, a long story anyway, the mass graves were eventually excavated largely because of the work of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, we applied DNA and today almost 7,000 of those 8,000 victims have been identified.

[00:14:56] And not only were they identified, but we can link the identity of a person back to the original crime scene, which is amazing because the bodies were heavily disarticulated, meaning that one person would be found often in 14 different locations, 50 kilometers apart from each other. So proving a genocide was part of, you know, the work of the International Criminal Tribunal and also the work of the states that we were operating in.

[00:15:21] So not only do states have an obligation to find missing persons, but as I said, they have an obligation to investigate missing persons. And once you've conducted an investigation, that evidence needs to go to court. So this is a big lesson for us in terms of understanding the evolution of this issue.

[00:15:39] Cuz we started in our minds thinking about this strictly as a humanitarian issue. And then Carla Del Ponte, the Prosecutor of the ICTY came to us, I believe it was in 2003 or so, and said we want all your genetic information. And we said, well, you can't have it because, this has been collected by families of the missing and the data belongs to them.

[00:16:02] And we said, and besides, you know, we've only collected this information for the purposes of identity, for closure of a missing person. And then we thought, well, why should we stand in the way? Families have rights to justice! I mean, where have we been? What have we even been thinking? And she's absolutely right, but we cannot provide the information, obviously, to the tribunal without going back to the families of the missing and collecting the data.

[00:16:25] So we began a process of doing it, and then Karadzic came along, and Karadzic is a perpetrator who's now here in prison, in the Hague, also said he wanted the genetic profiles that we had and we again said, well, of course you can't have them. Why do you need them? The trial chamber, you know, released a decision on this.

[00:16:44] But eventually we came to a deal with the trial chamber, where we would provide 300 reference samples with the permission of the families, which meant we had to go back to about 1500 families of the missing and provide this information and their written consent to provide this information to Karadzic himself.

[00:17:03] And we didn't know what would happen. And almost 100% of these cases, the families agreed to share their private data with, at that point the alleged perpetrator. So this to me was a very powerful indication of the family's need to have justice. So ICMP then went on to provide evidence in court of the link between the DNA match that we received and linking it back to the scene of the crime, but we did this together with the states involved, with the families of the missing and through work with the trial chamber. 

[00:17:38] So the whole thing was a huge learning experience. In the end, we've provided evidence in about 30 criminal trials, both at the ICTY and at domestic courts. And now we have a big operation in Ukraine, which we're just starting, and everything that we've learned is now going to apply to Ukraine.

[00:17:57] So we're already at sights, helping them conduct proper investigations. The numbers are at least 30,000 and rising, and the intention is to help Ukraine and everywhere else we're working, investigate missing person sites or sites of forensic interest to a level where this evidence can be documented and used in an international court.

[00:18:20] So that's a standard through which we help states and to use a DNA led process again, so that the identity of the person can be linked back to the crime scene. And all of this evidence can be provided to court and those who have perpetrated these crimes can be held to account. Sorry, you asked a simple question and this is a very long answer.

[00:18:40] Dr. Miranda Melcher: I mean, it's a brilliant answer! 


[00:18:42] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you, Kathryne, for sharing about your career and journey with us in this episode and giving us insight into the work of the ICMP. In our next episode, we'll delve more into the problem of missing persons as we lear from Kathryn's expertise. Hope you join us then!