While most human rights reporting relies on verbal testimony, sometimes the carnage is so horrendous and so complete that there are no survivors to provide a reliable account of events and circumstances. Forensic evidence has increasingly been used to corroborate, and supplement, accounts offered by survivors.
Forensic investigation — including autopsies — have long been a foundation of criminal investigation, including well known human rights cases. The 1979 Filartiga case, for example, relied on forensic analysis. Forensic evidence, however, was not systematically introduced to human rights reporting until the mid-1980s.
The first forensic human rights mission took place in Argentina and included participation of the accomplished forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow. The mission was organized by Eric Stover, who was at the time serving as head of the Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Stover recalls being approached by grandmothers of the disappeared in Argentina, and it was their fervent and persistent drive to learn what had happened to their loved ones that prompted the mission. The forensic mission was intended to help provide some closure and assist with healing for friends and relatives, but it also provided evidence for use in prosecution.
Forensic anthropology has proven to be a very useful tool for human rights investigation, if at times controversial. The approach pioneered in that first mission to Argentina was subsequently standardized by the Minnesota Lawyers Human Rights Committee (now The Advocates for Human Rights). Their “Minnesota Protocol” provides detailed instructions for conducting forensic autopsies and analysis of skeletal remains and has been adopted by the UN as part of a Manual on prevention and investigation of extra-legal executions.
The AAAS is no longer directly involved in forensic investigations, but the forensic units it helped establish in Argentina and Guatemala continue their work and have assisted with investigations in Haiti and elsewhere. Forensic analysis is now a standard component in the toolkit for human rights investigation, and it has proved an important source of evidence about such human rights atrocities as the massacre at Srebrenica. Physicians for Human Rights maintains an ongoing program in forensics and human rights, including crime scene documentation, collecting evidence of sexual violence and exhumations.
For more information:
Eric Stover is an expert on examining mass graves and has participated as an “Expert on Mission” to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He shares his experiences in the narrative, “Forensic Evidence and Human Rights Reporting.” Stover is faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley.
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- See International Commission on Missing Persons, created at the initiative of U.S. President Clinton in 1996 to enlist the cooperation of governments in locating and identifying those who have disappeared during armed conflict or as a result of human rights violations.
- Burns, Karen Ramey. “Forensic Anthropology and Human Rights Issues.” In Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of Human Remains, edited by Kathleen J. Reichs, 63-85. Charles C. Thomas, 1998.
- Joyce, Christopher and Eric Stover. Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell. Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
- Snow, Clyde. “Forensic Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology,11 (1982): 97-131.
- Stover, Eric and Gilles Peress. The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar. Scalo Publishers, 1998.
- Stover, Eric and Molly Ryan. “Breaking Bread with the Dead.” Historical Archaeology 35, no. 1 (2001): 7-25.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- Physicians for Human Rights, “Focus Areas/Killings and Mass Atrocities“
- New Tactics in Human Rights. “Using Forensics to Identify Victims’ Remains and Cause of Death.”
Case Studies and Examples
- Filartiga case, described in detail in Aceves, William. “Filartiga v. Pena-Irala: The Birth of Transnational Litigation,” Chapter 2 in The Anatomy of Torture. Brill, 2007.
- Fondebrinder, Luis. “Uncovering the Evidence: The Forensic Sciences in Human Rights: A Tactical Notebook” Case study. Center for Victims of Torture, 2004.
- Hashemia, Farnoosh. “Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by U.S. Personnel and its Impact” Case study. Cambridge: Physicians for Human Rights, 2008.
- Iocopina, Vincent. “Forensic Documentation of Torture and Ill Treatment in Mexico (Physicians for Human Rights” Case study. 2008.
- Moreno, Alejandro and Vincent Iacopina. “Ending Impunity: The Use of Forensic Medical Examination to Document Torture and Ill Treatment in Kyrgyzstan” Case study. Cambridge: Physicians for Human Rights, 2012.
Multimedia Sources, including Film
- “Srebrenica forensic specialist: grieving process can start now Ratko Mladic is on trial.” The Telegraph, 16 May, 2012. (Note: video news clip and footage of forensic investigation at time of Mladic’s arrest.)
- The Judge and The General. Directed by Elisabeth Farnsworth. PBS Point of View, 2008. (Note: demonstrates use of forensic sciences as part of human rights fact-finding in criminal investigation of General Pinochet of Chile.)
- Following Antigone: Forensic Anthropology and Human Rights Investigations, 2002. Documentary about work of Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team.