Brooks Newmark calls for legal status for International Commission on Missing Persons

17th July 2013

Brooks Newmark leads a debate on the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and calls for the UK to take a lead in persuading other countries to support granting the organisation a permanent legal status so that it can continue its valuable work on locating and identifying persons missing as a result of armed conflicts.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the important issue of UK policy on the International Commission on Missing Persons. The debate is particularly timely as last week we commemorated the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in what was declared to be the worst crime on European soil since the second world war. At the memorial service of that anniversary, 409 newly identified bodies were buried, giving families some closure on the grief that they have been living with for almost two decades.

Last year, I travelled to Bosnia on Project Maja with Baroness Warsi and, while in Sarajevo, I visited the International Commission on Missing Persons. I was struck by that unique and highly effective organisation, which has revolutionised the international community’s approach to addressing the issue of missing persons. In doing so, it has made a genuine contribution to justice and peace building in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world. Since that visit, I have wondered what the UK Government can do to support its vital work, and I am grateful for this opportunity to put some questions to the Minister directly today.

By way of background, it may be helpful if I first offer Members a brief introduction to the organisation. President Clinton founded the ICMP in 1996 as an organisation to clarify the fate of missing persons following the Balkans war. Confronting the scale of the problem, the ICMP developed state-of-the-art DNA identification technology and has helped to resolve 70% of missing persons cases from the 1990s conflict, including 7,000 of the 8,100 missing from Srebrenica. Such unparalleled results provide the means to end the desperate uncertainty that families have endured. The ICMP has also provided irrefutable evidence to the domestic and international courts that heard war crimes cases, including those of Karadzic and Mladic. For the first time in history, DNA evidence is being used to convict the architects of genocide.

The distinctive expertise that the ICMP brings to this field is reflected in the growing contribution that it is making beyond the Balkans. This year, having just opened up offices in Libya, the ICMP received funds from the UK, which were announced by the Prime Minister during his visit to Tripoli. The organisation has already started DNA testing, and within just one month it identified 100 victims of Gaddafi’s forces.

The ICMP has also been working in Iraq for several years. Sadly, it is clear that, in the future, Syria will also require similar assistance. Indeed, as the conflict in Syria continues to rage on, it should be noted that according to information received by the ICMP, at least 28,000 people are thought to be missing. As we look to the future and hope for a peace settlement, I would like to ensure that the issue of missing persons is addressed in the context of any future peace agreement, just as it was in the Dayton peace accords that ended the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, it is important that action is taken now to work with the thousands of families who are displaced in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq because of the conflict and who have missing relatives, so that when the conflict ends, measures will already have been taken to address an issue that will figure prominently in rebuilding Syria and restoring peace to the region.

In addition to its post-conflict work, the ICMP has assisted Chile, Colombia and South Africa with addressing missing persons cases following human rights violations, and it has also assisted in the aftermath of natural disasters in Thailand and the Philippines and Hurricane Katrina in the United States. In total, the ICMP has identified the remains of more than 19,000 individuals in the past decade.

Having learned about the widespread and vital work of this organisation, I now come to the crux of the matter, which is that the future of this important organisation is in jeopardy. I believe that the UK Government can do more to support its future. However, this is a matter not of funding but of diplomatic support. Having achieved what it was established to do in the western Balkans, the ICMP is gradually winding down its assistance in that region. Yet all of its programmes worldwide rely, with varied effectiveness, on a legal status recognised in a few states in the Balkans and a headquarters in Sarajevo. That is not a sustainable basis for its future.

The ICMP is not incorporated under the domestic law of any one country, and it is not a non-governmental organisation. Its lack of formal international legal status hampers its ability to carry out its work and, as a result, it was forced to close its office in Colombia and its efforts in Libya and Iraq are being put at unnecessary risk. A draft legal framework was negotiated by the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark in 2004, within which ICMP could operate, but the document was never concluded, leaving the ICMP without a permanent, internationally recognised status.

So what can the UK do? I was initially keen for the UK to take the lead on supporting the ICMP and for the organisation to be based in the UK, but I have been persuaded that the logical place for it to have a sustainable headquarters would be in The Hague, which is keen to provide the ICMP with a home. As the seat of many international justice institutions, including the International Criminal Court, The Hague would be an ideal permanent base for the ICMP. However, the Dutch condition is that the ICMP’s legal status is put on a more sustainable footing, allowing it to operate in the Netherlands, and in the often dangerous countries in which it works, with the immunities it needs to protect its database of genetic information, some of which is voluntarily provided by family members of the missing.

The Dutch Foreign Minister is prepared to lead a process aimed at securing that status, but only if he has reassurance that the other partner countries will support his efforts. This is where the UK Government could do more. To assure the future of the ICMP and to secure its work, it is vital that the UK gives a clear signal of support for the Dutch initiative. I therefore urge the Minister to make the UK’s support clear, thereby making a decisive contribution to securing the organisation’s future for the benefit of all.

The Foreign Secretary visited the ICMP last October, which was an excellent signal of support, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been actively working with the Netherlands ever since to resolve questions over the ICMP’s future status. As a matter of principle, I am no advocate of tying the UK to permanent financial commitments with international organisations, but the fact that ICMP has not had the luxury of permanent funding, and that it has innovated and managed costs effectively at every stage in its history, underscores another critical reason for me to support the organisation. Furthermore, having developed a broad range of programmes and the world’s largest human identification laboratory, the ICMP has a budget of a mere £5 million, which means that its endeavours to alleviate suffering around the world are very cost-effective. It does not seek any permanent funding commitments. Instead, a permanent legal status will enable it to build on an exceptional track record of success in raising voluntary contributions.

It is clear that an effective response to the tragedy of missing persons caused by conflict is, and will remain, a fundamental element of successful conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution. The UK has a direct interest in ensuring that present and future international peace-building strategies include missing persons as an integral element. To assure the ICMP’s future, it is now time for the UK to take a leadership role in encouraging other states to support the Dutch initiative to give the ICMP a permanent status. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response both to the idea of giving the ICMP a permanent legal status and on what the FCO can specifically do to give the ICMP the support it duly deserves.

Finally, I wish to thank a number of individuals for their insights: first and foremost, Adam Boys and his team at the ICMP for the tremendous work that they do; Baroness Warsi, for introducing me to Bosnia through Project Maja; my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for sharing their experiences in the Balkans; Lady Nott, for taking me to meet the mothers of Srebrenica; my researcher, Lara Nelson, for helping me to put together this speech and indeed for all her work for me during the past three years; and finally everyone at the Foreign Office, especially Arminka Helic, for their input and encouragement in helping me to better understand the work of the ICMP.

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