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Speech by President Halonen in the High level conference on Missing persons – Way forward, Kosovo

Strengthening and modernizing forensic services in Kosovo

President Tarja Halonen

High level conference on Missing persons – Way forward

on Tuesday, 8th September 2015, Pristina, Kosovo


Honorable President Jahjaga, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor to have this opportunity to address you at this Conference on Missing persons – Way forward in Kosovo.

Peace has now prevailed in Kosovo for more than 15 years. Humanitarian and crisis management operations have given way to expert support for strengthening the rule of law, democratic institutions and economic growth. My own country Finland has been an active international actor in assisting to rebuild Kosovo.

The relationship between our countries is warm. Kosovo declared independence on the 17th of February 2008, and Finland recognized it on the 7th of March 2008. The work of Former President Martti Ahtisaari as UN Special Representative during the Kosovo status negotiations has been well acknowledged. Today Finland is present in Kosovo through traditional diplomacy along with military and civilian crisis management, development cooperation and EU-projects.

The memories of war still linger in Kosovo and dealing with the past is crucial for the stability of the country. This is one reason why forensic services need to be further developed. Only through a transparent judicial system, citizens have trust for a better future of the society. Forensic investigations of human rights violations, including determination of manner and cause of death and eventual identification of recovered human remains, are important not only from the legal point of view. For those, who have survived but lost their family members and loved ones, it is imperative to learn what has happened.

We also have to learn and be able to move forward after a crisis, no matter how difficult it is and feels. We have to build the future together for ourselves and our children.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In response to the escalation of violence and the increasing number of alleged atrocities in Kosovo in early spring 1998, several states and various human rights organizations wanted to send an independent fact-finding entity to the region. Because the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was not acknowledged at that time by the Former Republic of Yugoslavia on its territory, this option was under dispute and thus not available. Due to Finland’s traditional impartiality and its excellent professional and scientific reputation, a national team was gathered with experts mostly from the Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of Helsinki to take up the task.

The Finnish Team adopted the concept of the universality of human rights. These rights are also extended to the deceased and disappeared in the form of dignified handling of human remains and burial. This interpretation has its roots in the ethical code of the forensic science community, and is reflected also in the legal framework of international humanitarian law.

It is worth considering the possibility of incorporating forensic fact-finding investigations more clearly into the doctrine regarding the legal means of settling international and national disputes. In particular, such investigations might become one of the tools for producing factual information on treatment of civilians in conflict and crisis areas.

However, forensic evidence has its limitations. Mere forensic evidence can never establish issues of liability and guilt. These conclusions are left to the appropriate legal tribunals to emerge through fair and impartial legal proceedings after criminal investigations have been completed. This fact has to be acknowledged by the public, the media, the international community, the lawyers and the members of the Team.

Dear participants,

In Kosovo, competent institutions and organizations work continuously on collecting information, which helps in the process of shedding light on the fate of missing persons. Considering the importance of institutional memory and experience, the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is most valuable. The ICRC helps families of missing persons to meet their legal, economic and psychosocial needs. At the same time, the ICRC works with authorities to build the necessary forensic capacity and develop mechanisms for improving communication, cooperation and coordination between actors mandated to clarify the fate of missing persons.

Under international humanitarian law, the remains of people who have died during armed conflict must be handled with dignity and properly managed. Regarding good governance, the staff of forensic services emphasise the importance of accountability and professionalism of all civil servants. This means that they apply the principles of legality, transparency, public consultation and integrity in their work.

Locating and analyzing human remains can be difficult. This is especially so when bodies have been buried in secret graves; when the number of unidentified remains is high, analysis and identification is made even more difficult. The importance and crucial role of forensic anthropology and archaeology in the recovery of human remains in the field (exhumations) and subsequent investigation of human skeletal remains have been widely recognized.

At the moment, the European Union Rule of Law Mission, EULEX, is providing expert assistance in Kosovo. EULEX mission focuses on providing support to Kosovo’s rule of law institutions at the strategic level, but also in the concrete level in supporting the identification of missing persons. However, in the future when the tasks of EULEX will be handed over to the Department of Forensic Medicine (DFM), there will be a need to assure the competence of local experts. The EULEX together with the EU funded IPA-project currently provides advice, support and training for forensic practitioners in searching for, recovering, analyzing, identifying, and managing of unidentified remains.

Since 1999 the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP) has addressed the issue of missing persons as a consequence of the Kosovo conflict. The work of the ICMP focuses on ensuring that transparency and human rights standards are fully applied when determining the fate and whereabouts of the missing. ICMP has supported efforts to improve dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and has worked to promote the capacity of the Kosovo Government Commission on Missing Persons (GCMP).

In order to support Kosovo authorities to strengthen the rule of law enforcement, European Union has provided a special project with a focus on forensic medicine services under the Ministry of Justice. The purpose of the project is to strengthen and modernize the forensic services at the Department of Forensic Medicine. The Department will apply European and international standards and best practices in its work. The project is managed by the EU Office in Kosovo and implemented by the National Institute for Health and Welfare of Finland (THL) and the Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of Helsinki.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Recognising that forensic medicine may be a sensitive issue in Kosovo due to the armed conflict and its immediate aftermath, all activities should be implemented in an impartial manner, avoiding the influence of any possible political interference. This is especially important in developing the clinical forensic services and missing persons and outreach services of the Department of Forensic Medicine. For the recovery and reconciliation of broken societies, the psychosocial support to the survivors and the families who have lost their loved ones is crucial.

Forensic investigations of human rights violations are very important for those, who have survived but lost their family members and loved ones. In the worst cases, when there is no hope of finding them alive, they have the right to know whether the remains are among the human remains recovered. They have this right to know in order to rebuild their lives, to look toward the future, and most importantly, to break the vicious circle of hatred and revenge which so easily continues through the generations.

The remains of the victims also deserve the last rites of their own religion and traditions and to be buried in proper graves with their own and true names identifying each grave. Because this is also an important part of the reconciliation process, the resources for the identification procedures should be made available during the early stages of reconstruction and normalization of any broken society. Reconciliation is a long and painful process and even after reconciliation, emotional scars are still present.

This is a very intense experience for me to be in Kosovo. When I was the Foreign Minister of Finland in 1996, I visited the border regions here. When we were arriving on the plane, I remember asking our experts who joined me on the visit if they knew on whose side their grandparents had fought in our civil war. They did remember, but I did not want to know on which side. My point is that most people still know, although it is almost 100 years since our sad civil war took place. The scars have healed, but it took several generations. I am very glad to see that the process will be faster in Kosovo. It is good to see the progress you have made and are keen to make to ensure a future which is a better one.

I thank you for your attention.