The right of families to information
While the two countries have continued to work separately on missing person searches in recent years, many of the cases may only be resolved through ambitious bilateral cooperation.
A major challenge to this cooperation is that the issue of missing persons is increasingly being misused by politicians in Kosovo and Serbia to blame the other side for their wartime actions and poor judicial prosecution of these crimes.
Not only has this perpetuated distrust between ethnic groups in Kosovo, but it has also hampered bilateral cooperation in locating missing persons, as I have already written. My research, based on in-depth interviews conducted in Kosovo in 2022, shows that civil society initiatives have been actively working to reverse this negative trend in recent years, but have made efforts to do so while there is political will to change the official rhetoric is absent.
However, the leaderships in Belgrade and Pristina need to recognize that it is in their mutual interest to work together on this matter, not to score political points or reinforce war narratives, but to provide answers to their citizens – families of missing people.
Many of the relatives are old and could die without knowing what happened to their parents, partners, siblings or children during the war. There’s no time. It is high time to declare the problem urgent and return the delegations to the working group to solve the solvable cases.
It is also of great importance that delegations commit to addressing the issue of missing persons as a humanitarian issue, regardless of the ethnicity of the missing person. This is particularly important for the families of the missing, who are not Albanians or Serbs but belong to one of Kosovo’s many ethnic minorities, as experts in the field interviewed for my research have repeatedly emphasized.
Those missing from the conflict include people of all ethnic groups including (but not limited to) Roma, Turks, Ashkaelia and Bosniaks. The International Commission of the Red Cross has long advocated not categorizing missing persons by ethnicity in their statistical database. This should be an example for the Kosovo and Serbian delegations in their renewed search and investigation efforts.
Finally, addressing the issue of missing persons as a matter of urgency must be independent of progress on other aspects of the agreement. While the other points of the EU-backed agreement are certainly important for the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as for the countries’ individual paths to EU membership, issues of recognition or self-government of Serb communities in northern Kosovo should not to block the progress of the investigation of remaining missing persons cases.
The problem of missing persons must be treated as a humanitarian problem. The focus should be on providing answers to families who are still desperate for news almost 25 years after the conflict. The “right to information” of families is guaranteed by international humanitarian and human rights law and must not be compromised.
The issue should be treated as urgent, not for political reasons, but because loved ones of missing persons die without getting answers about what happened to their loved ones.
Nina Kaufmann holds a Masters in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. She wrote her diploma thesis on missing persons from the Kosovo conflict.