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article imageBalkans deal on war missing an 'investment in peace'

By Danny KEMP (AFP)     Nov 7, 2018 in World

Balkan countries will boost cooperation to identify victims of the 1990s wars, said the head of a group that helps trace missing people, describing it as a "big deal" in an era of growing nationalism around the world.

Representatives from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia signed the agreement on Tuesday, said the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

Around 12,000 people are still not accounted for out of the 40,000 missing from the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, according to the ICMP, which helps with DNA testing and the exchange of data.

"It's an investment in peace and stability, definitely," ICMP director general Kathryne Bomberger told AFP in an interview at the non-governmental group's headquarters in The Hague.

"The fact that they came together to form a missing persons group and to sign a work plan to commit themselves to finding the remaining 12,000 missing persons is a big deal," she added.

"That's not an easy feat in an era now of populism and nationalism," said Bomberger.

The deal came despite lasting tensions in the region, which during the 1990s formed the battleground to Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II.

More than 70 percent of people missing after the conflict have now been identified, giving closure to loved ones and also providing evidence for international trials.

The agreement will now see the countries step up work to identify the rest, to share information, and to even carry out joint exhumations.

"I am sure there will be hiccups, there always are, but genuinely I think they're all committed," Bomberger said.

- 'Return to barbarism' -

The ICMP was set up in 1996 in Sarajevo by then US president Bill Clinton and moved to The Hague in 2016, where it now hosts laboratories with DNA testing technology.

Work to identify the missing in the Balkans has been gruelling, covering mass graves such as those from the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia.

The ICMP also has a programme in Iraq, is involved in identifying migrants missing in the Mediterranean, and has helped identify victims from crimes and disasters including the 2014 shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine.

The group sees itself as part of a wider network of The Hague-based institutions of international justice, such as the now-defunct Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court.

Both the ICJ and ICC have come under attack from US President Donald Trump's administration as it rails against multilateral bodies deemed hostile to American sovereignty.

The US assault comes at a time when rights groups say that authoritarianism, nationalism and populism are on the rise around the world.

"In today's world unfortunately the rule of law is being undermined... I personally think we have nothing else but the rule of law, if you don't respect the need to uphold that then we return to barbarism," said Bomberger.

"This is a very important moment in the West... and the missing persons component is just a facet of that."

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