Title

Podcast: Lost and Found

How the International Commission on Missing Persons Helps Find Closure and Pursue Justice

Only July 11, 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina were rounded up, gunned down, and buried in mass graves by Bosnian Serb forces, in what was the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

The brutality of the genocide of Srebrenica was compounded by the deliberate effort by those responsible to hide their crimes. The use of mass graves and the subsequent movement of remains of the murdered using heavy machinery meant that the identification of the victims seemed nearly impossible at the time. 

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons, discusses how ICMP has helped families of the Srebrenica victims find closure and pursue justice. She also discusses the commission’s evolution from dealing with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia to its work worldwide—including in Syria, Colombia, and elsewhere—today.


"Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Transcript | Episode 12 | Lost and Found: How the International Commission on Missing Persons Helps Find Closure and Pursue Justice

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  • Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)

    This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented. 

  • Brcko and the Future of Bosnia

    The briefing was introduced by Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission , who addressed the status of Brcko. Both a city and a district in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina along the Sava River, Brcko borders on the Slavonian region of Croation. Prior to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, Brcko had a mixed population, but this was destroyed by the ethnic cleansing.  Hand then discussed the strategic importance of Brcko, often called the Posavina Corridor, as it serves as a corridor by which the Serb-held region of western Bosnia is linked to Serbia and to eastern Bosnia. Witnesses - Frank McCloskey, Special Counsel to the Bosnian Federation; Susan Woodward, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, the Brookings Institution; Soren Jessen Petersen, Former UNHCR Special Envoy for the Former Yugoslavia; and Carol Schlitt, Attorney, National Defense University - highlighted the importance of Brcko, which was made evident by the fact that its status could not be agreed upon at the Dayton negotiations. This diverse group of experts concluded by commenting on the future of the region, and on Bosnia-Herzegovina in general.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Civil Implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia

    Robert Hand, staff advisor at the Commission, led the discussion as part of a series of briefings on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This briefing focused on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s September elections, for which the Commission sent six observers. Hand was joined by Ambassador Robert Frowick, who was part of the Provisional Election Commission that organized the September elections. Ambassador Frowick spoke of the new institutions and their newly elected officials, but also addressed the internal divisions and outside pressures he had to combat when organizing the elections.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Bosnian Elections III: Representatives of Bosnian Political Parties

    Robert Hand led the discussion on the upcoming Bosnian elections, which were scheduled for mid-September later that year.  He was joined by representatives of political parties from Bosnia-Herzegovina, a rather diverse group of individuals - some of them represented parties in powers and others that are not and from various ethnic constituencies. The witnesses - Ljilana Bubic of the Republican Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Adnan Jahic, President of the Party for Democratic Action in Tuzla; Hasib Salkic, Secretary General of the Liberal Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Zdenko Kubicek of the Executive Board of the Croatian Party of Rights; Mirjana Malic of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Zoran Tomic of the Croatian Democratic Union - introduced their parties’ histories, issues, and goals. They then focused more specifically on how they see the Bosnian elections unfolding and their thoughts about having them in the upcoming fall.

  • Bosnia: Should the OSCE Certify Conditions Exist for Free and Fair Elections?

    The Helsinki Commission is focusing on what it considers one of the most important international events of this year, the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Commission has held several briefings on this topic already with election experts from the United States, with members of the Provisional Election Commission from Bosnia, with representatives of political parties from that country, and most recently, with persons close to the situation in Banja Luka. Human rights organizations and others following the situation in Bosnia have warned that conditions for a free and fair election simply do not exist; and yet, the U.S. Government and some European governments have pressured the OSCE to certify nonetheless. A robust discussion on curbing rampant political gerrymandering and obstructions to free and fair elections will be underscored in the hearing.

  • Rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina: Strategies and the U.S. Role

    The Helsinki Commission addressed the status of the ongoing rehabilitation efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the conclusion of the war that took place between 1992 and 1995. Amidst lasting tensions, the Commission emphasized the need for reconciliation and for civilians to actively participate in this process. The primary witness, J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development, emphasized several goals for moving forward in Bosnia-Herzegovina such as addressing the issue of displaced persons by repairing housing infrastructure, encouraging economic activity through international cooperation with the central bank, and initiating elections under free and fair conditions. 

  • Report: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugolsavia, An Update

    In early 1996, with little fanfare, the U.N. Security Council quietly and quickly selected Canadian Judge Louise Arbour to succeed Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The relative ease with which a replacement was chosen -- in contrast to the prolonged, relatively public, and embarrassing manner in which the Security Council members fought among themselves for nearly a year over the selection of the first prosecutor -- reflects the dramatically changed circumstances in which the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal now finds itself. At the time of Goldstone’s appointment in 1994, most observers of the Yugoslav conflict seemed to fall into one of two categories: those that thought war crimes trials should be held, but did not believe the Tribunal would ever indict anybody above the rank of private (let alone hold an actual trial), and those who believed that the mere discussion of war crimes trials undermined peace negotiations. Under Goldstone’s able stewardship, the Tribunal has developed a full complement of staff, including prosecuting attorneys and investigators; issued more than fifty indictments, including for the two highest ranking Bosnian-Serb political and military leaders and three members of the Yugoslav People’s Army; obtained custody of three men; and begun the Tribunal’s first trial. Goldstone has deftly managed a multitude of political crises, successfully traversed the treacherous waters of the U.N. bureaucracy, and, thus far, helped safeguard the legal integrity and credibility of the Tribunal. All of these factors, combined with the achievement of a tenuous peace agreement in Dayton in November 1995,2 now make the possibility of war crimes trials seem, to many, more real than ever before. This memorandum outlines the basic structure of the Tribunal and the most recent developments with respect to investigations and trials, cooperation by U.N. member states with the Tribunal, and funding.

  • Mass Graves and Other Atrocities in Bosnia

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the atrocities committed against women, men, and children in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. These atrocities exemplified Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the former Yugoslavia at large, as areas where internecine violence and strife seemed to be constant phenomena.

  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Banja Luka-Ethnic Cleansing Paradigm

    Samuel Wise, international policy director of the Commission, addressed the political setting in Bosnia before elections in 1995 and the possibility of having a free and fair environment, especially in regards to human rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The briefing focused on Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is located in the northwest. Since the beginning of the Bosnian conflict, the city was firmly in the hands of the Bosnian Serb rebels until the Dayton Accords placed the city in the Republika Srpska, the newly created Serbian republic. The city and the region surrounding it had a significant non-Serb population (Bosniacs or Muslim Slavs, Croats, Ukrainians, and ethnically mixed Yugoslavs), which was ethnically cleansed on behalf of the Serbian government. While some instances of ethnic cleansing there took the form of subtle measures, the most notorious concentration camps, including Omarska, were in the Banja Luka region. The witnesses – Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka  Franjo Komarica,  Obrad Kesic from the International Research and Exchanges Board, and Diane Paul, a nurse from Baltimore – discussed the city as a scene of apparent differences among Serb political activists with highly divergent points of view. They emphasized that Bosnia’s future hinged on whether moderates or radicals won in the elections in that region.

  • The Latest Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    With Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presiding, this hearing focused on the continuing ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. This hearing was held with the events of the two weeks that preceded it in mind. More specifically, militants from Serbia had attacked UN outposts and, subsequently, had taken peacekeepers hostage.  In spite of the atrocities being committed against the Bosnian people, Rep. Smith stated that the international community viewed the conflict in Bosnia as more of a crisis than the Bosnians themselves. Unfortunately, though, as this hearing sought to address, the international community could have better responded to the crisis in the former Yugoslav country. As a witness, Dr. Haris Silajdzic was also in attendance.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • The United Nations, NATO and the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on policy questions related to United Nations efforts and coordinated assistance from NATO in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The hearing reviewed a historical timeline of the events and atrocities associated with the war. The hearing covered the issue of genocide and the actions in which the United States ought to respond. In relation to the war, the hearing touched based on the effectiveness of the Bosnian arms embargo and whether its intended approached has alleviated the conflict in any matter. The witnesses and the Commissioners touched on the logistical difficulties faced by the United Nations and what the general perspective and desires of the local population.

  • Genocide in Bosnia

    This hearing focused on determinig if the recent ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural sites, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia constituted genocide.  In particular, the witnesses and Commissioners discussed  how many of the war crimes were committed on orders from the military and the political leadership.

  • The Crisis in Chechnya

    This hearing discussed the human right violations conducted by the Russian government against the civilians of the Chechen Republic. The horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronted Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • U.S. HELSINKI COMMISSION DELEGATION TO BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

    The Commission delegation travelled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to assess the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the third winter of the conflict in that country approached. Specifically, the delegation was interested in local observations of the prospects for peace, international policies to enhance those prospects quickly and effectively, and the continuing humanitarian crisis that continues in the meantime. These objectives were part of a larger Commission effort to document the tragic events which had transpired in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the former Yugoslavia since that federation began its violent disintegration, and to raise public awareness of the severe violations of CSCE principles and provisions that resulted. Following its visit to Sarajevo, the Commission delegation travelled to Albania at the invitation of President Sali Berisha. The visit offered the opportunity for the Commission to observe firsthand the vast changes which had taken place in Albania since the elections of 1992, which ousted the communists from power after nearly 50 years of ruthless repression and isolation. It also was intended to show support for Albania during a time of crisis and conflict in the Balkans and, at the same time, to encourage Albania to make continued progress and avoid making mistakes which could damage Albania's image abroad. During the last stop on the trip, the delegation visited Turkey to examine issues of mutual concern to the United States and Turkey, including human rights issues, the Kurdish situation, conflict in the Balkans and the Middle East peace process.  

  • Bosnia’s Second Winter Siege

    After two years of genocide and starvation and despite the best efforts of Western Europe and the United States, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has not ended. A robust discussion on the best policies toward Bosnia-Herzegovina the United States should implement will ensue.

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