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International Commission on Missing Persons

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013

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 be 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 give 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 better to understand the work of the ICMP.

May I begin by saying how delighted I am to serve under your guidance this morning, Mr Hollobone?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) on securing this important debate on the International Commission on Missing Persons. I know that it is an issue in which he takes a very keen interest, and with my colleague Baroness Warsi he has visited Sarajevo to see the ICMP’s incredible operation at first hand. I also congratulate him on the articulate and knowledgeable way in which he introduced this important debate.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my view that often when conflict and violence end, our attention is drawn away too quickly to another crisis and other parts of the world. However, for many people a conflict cannot truly end until they know the fate of their missing loved ones. Those loved ones are parents, wives, husbands or children, who are often civilians and not combatants and who were separated from their families by the chaos of war, who disappeared while in detention or who simply did not return home one day.

As the House may be aware, this week saw the burials of another 409 newly identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre. This year alone, more than 6,000 victims of that massacre have been identified and 6,000 families—after 18 years of uncertainty, anguish and longing—at last have a chance to mourn their dead and to give them the dignity of a decent burial, as well as an opportunity for acceptance and closure.

However, as my hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out, those events, while solemn, could not have taken place without the ceaseless and vital work of the ICMP. As he also rightly said, the ICMP has identified approximately 16,000 people from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, including 85% of those reported missing after the fall of Srebrenica. The ICMP has also responded to requests for documentation and expert testimony from international and domestic courts on matters relating to serious international crimes. Without the ICMP, many families in the former Yugoslavia would have been unable to gain any form of closure, and without that vital closure the feelings of injustice and resentment would continue to build, fuelling ethnic tensions and making reconciliation all but impossible, particularly for future generations.

That is why the Government have played an active role in championing the ICMP’s work, alongside our broader conflict prevention, peace-building and international justice policies. We are firmly committed to the ICMP, just as we are committed to challenging impunity and ensuring accountability for the most serious international crimes. We are clear that where there is no accountability, there is no justice, and that where there is no justice, there will not be lasting peace, reconciliation or stability. That is why we also welcome the excellent work that the ICMP has done, including sharing its pioneering expertise, particularly in the use of DNA, in other conflict zones.

Although it is of course saddening that the ICMP’s work continues to be relevant and needed, we recognise the important role that it has played, and will continue to play, in identifying many missing people in places such as Iraq, Kosovo, Libya and—my hon. Friend made this point forcefully—in Syria. It is clear that in the aftermath of the terrible conflict that is raging in Syria, Syria will face many challenges to achieving peaceful transition, recovery and reconstruction. The UK will continue to support the Geneva II process to deliver a transitional governing body with full executive authority. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that it is for the Syrian people to agree the make-up of a transitional Government who can win the consent of all Syrians, and to decide how transition will take place, including—importantly—the future role of the ICMP in Syria. However, we believe that the ICMP’s expertise will be relevant, and we continue to work closely with the United Nations to ensure that the international community is ready to support a future Syrian authority to rebuild stability and democracy.

Of course, the ICMP makes a vital contribution not only in conflict zones but in its work to identify the victims of natural and other disasters, such as those that have happened in Thailand and the Maldives, and following Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

It is in recognition of its work that the Government have provided consistent political and financial support to the ICMP for a number of years; again, that was accurately pointed out by my hon. Friend. In addition to contributions made through the European Union, the UK Government have directly provided more than £3 million in funding towards the work of the ICMP since 2000. Recent UK programmes have included funding of almost £400,000 to assist the ICMP with identification of missing persons in Libya.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for everything that he is saying. However, it is not only a financial commitment that the ICMP seeks, because frankly I could go round to a bunch of my friends and raise £5 million to keep the ICMP going. The ICMP’s frustration is at the lack of political will by the major countries—including even the United States, which originally formed the ICMP—to give it permanent legal status. That is what the ICMP needs, and I wonder what the Government will do to assist it in giving it the permanent legal status it needs, because that is what its future depends on. The clock is ticking, the ICMP’s centre will close down this year and if the ICMP does not gain permanent legal status we will not be able to help families, for example in Syria, who will have missing persons and who will need the support that the ICMP provides.

I am grateful for that intervention by my hon. Friend; he is not only visionary but prescient, because I am about to address exactly the point that he has just raised. He is absolutely right that it is important to fund the future work of the ICMP through projects, but the ICMP does not just need financial support. The ICMP is keen to secure a legal status and move its headquarters. Despite the success of its projects, we also understand—again, this was a point that he correctly made—that ICMP programmes have been thwarted because of its current legal status. That is why it is all the more important that the ICMP be afforded a status that allows it to operate with Governments and countries across the globe.

The Government support the ICMP’s efforts to establish a legal status that will afford its staff, records and equipment the protection required to allow it to operate in potentially hostile political environments, and to have a global reach and an international profile that befits the importance of its role. It is vital for the families of the missing, and for the processes of reconciliation and international justice, that the ICMP be able to continue its work unimpeded and that the expertise that has been developed is not lost. I agree with my hon. Friend about that.

The city authority of The Hague has offered the ICMP the opportunity to relocate its headquarters there, and the Dutch Government have offered assistance in dealing with questions of policy and legality, such as securing legal status for the ICMP. We readily support the Dutch Government’s initiative in offering the ICMP a new home in The Hague, alongside other international institutions. Officials from the British embassy in The Hague took part in an initial working group held in May, specifically to discuss the issues that my hon. Friend outlined, and we will participate in further discussions as we move the process further.

For my hon. Friend’s information, we will participate in the next ICMP event in The Hague at the end of October, at which it will share its ambitions and plans for the long-term future. In parallel, we will also consider who should fill the significant role of the UK’s international commissioner to the ICMP.

As my hon. Friend will know, last week we marked the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. It needs to be said that, although significant work has been done, there is still a significant amount more to do. Sadly, some of those responsible for the appalling atrocities that took place are still at large and many victims’ remains have not yet been identified. The difficult, painstaking work must continue, not just in the former Yugoslavia but in some of the other places that we have discussed this morning.

In conclusion, the Government will continue to support strongly both the ICMP’s work and efforts to formalise its status. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend. I reiterate that the UK Government are committed to the ICMP and will continue to press other Governments to do likewise to ensure that it is as effective a body as possible, so that reconciliation, peace and stability can be brought into being and maintained in some of the places around the world that have suffered terrible conflict and atrocities.

I thank the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) for his well crafted and well delivered speech and the Minister for his succinct, detailed response.

Sitting suspended.