BiH takes steps to become a world forensic centre


Sarajevo canton authorities will provide logistical support to the International Commission for Missing Persons to permanently base its headquarters and world-renowned forensic laboratory in the BiH capital.

By Anes Alic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 06/03/12


The ICMP laboratory in BiH uses advanced technology to identify remains of missing people. [Anes Alic/SETimes]

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is making plans to become the global centre for DNA-identification expertise and technology that has reached as far as the US, Thailand and Iraq, but it faces logistical and financial challenges before reaching its full potential.

The International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) in BiH, which developed the technology in co-operation with BiH scientists, confirmed that Sarajevo will host its new global headquarters and central forensic laboratory.

"We are already the world's main forensic centre and several European governments have offered to host our global headquarters, but we believe Sarajevo is the best choice," ICMP's Western Balkans programme co-ordinator Klaudija Kuljuh told SETimes.

Before the advent of the ICMP technology in the late 1990s, scientists relied on traditional forensic methods that were slow and not as dependable.

The ICMP developed an electronic database that stores and cross-references tens of thousands of DNA samples. Its programme searches for profiles to a probability of one in ten million. It can identify a victim within one second by using a blood sample even from a very distant relative.

Identifying remains of missing persons – an estimated 150,000 go missing annually -- is no longer an overwhelming or unreliable process.

A team of experts in forensics, pathology, bioinformatics, molecular biology, archaeology and anthropology conducts ICMP's advanced DNA profiling. The Commission employs 140 people, the vast majority of whom are BiH nationals, educated in BiH and trained at the commission's laboratory.

Nearly 10,000 cases are still pending from the 1992-95 BiH war, mostly from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The politically sensitive process was made easier in 2005, when BiH authorities created a state-level Missing Persons Institute (MPI), merging three ethnically separate organisations to share information across ethnic lines.

Identifications increased since, but experts say they expect additional progress later this year when MPI will create a central database. It will help calculate more accurately the number of missing persons.

Internationally, the BiH-based ICMP laboratory helped identify the victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina in the US by analyzing about 250 bone samples, as well as the remains of missing persons in Iraq and some victims of the World Trade Centre attacks.

Thailand, the UK and Germany also sought the ICMP's help in identifying the 8,000 victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Most recently, Libya's new government has contacted the ICMP for assistance.

The Commission plays a key role in post-conflict countries and directly affects reconciliation as well as refugee returns, according to MPI Board of Directors President Marko Jurisic.

"There is no progress in any sense without burying the dead and punishing those who killed them. As attested to by history, if the missing persons issue is neglected, it will come out at some point and demand answers," Jurisic told SETimes.

The challenge now however, is to bring the global forensics centre online. The ICMP's annual operating budget for the Western Balkans alone is 5.3m euros. It relies on grants, donations and contributions from participating governments.

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The ICMP also requires logistical assistance from BiH. Sarajevo Canton authorities have pledged to find a suitable location for a new facility, realising a deal would mean lucrative contracts for local pharmaceuticals and laboratories.

"The ICMP idea we recognised as a very positive one ... It is very close to materialising but we must follow proper administrative procedures to satisfy the (ICMP's) needs," Sarajevo Mayor Alija Behmen told SETimes.

On a broader level, BiH would be put on the map as the world leader in DNA profiling and post-conflict reconciliation, rather than simply a victim.

"Out of something horrible, good is emerging. Bosnia can play an important role in finding the truth and [promoting] reconciliation in the world," Munira Subasic, president of the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, told SETimes.

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