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The management of unidentified bodies: the ICRC’s priority is responding to the families

28-07-2010 Interview

From 28 to 30 June forensic doctors from virtually all Mexican states and from the Federal District took part in the First National Meeting of Forensic Medical Services: the management of unidentified bodies, which was organized by the ICRC and the Federal District Supreme Court of Justice. In this interview, Dr Morris Tidball-Binz, forensic coordinator at the ICRC, talks about the importance of dealing correctly with dead bodies and identifying them.

What is meant by the management of unidentified bodies and why is the ICRC addressing this topic?  

When we talk about the management of dead bodies, we are referring to the series of steps taken from the time when the bodies are found and collected until they are handed over. This includes their identification but also the investigation carried out to determine the possible causes and circumstances of death. From a humanitarian point of view, it is about ensuring that the bodies are handled appropriately and in a dignified manner and about respecting the right of the families and of society to know what happened and to reclaim, name, ke ep a vigil for and pay tribute to their dead.

This topic is of particular interest to the ICRC in connection with people reported missing during armed conflicts and other situations of violence, as families have a fundamental right to know the whereabouts of their loved ones who have gone missing in those situations.

The appropriate management of dead bodies is a key step in giving the families an answer regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones. It is a key component in dealing with the problem of the missing and one of the ICRC’s priorities.

 What are the requirements of the Mexican context regarding the management of unidentified bodies?  

According to very conservative estimations, between two and three thousand dead bodies remain unidentified each year and are buried in municipal cemeteries or in mass graves in Mexico or handed over to faculties of medicine. A large percentage of those dead bodies are said to be those of migrants and victims of the violence associated with organized crime. Behind each of those dead bodies there is a family who is looking for that person and who has the right to know what has happened as well as to make preparations for the period of mourning and the funeral and to put an end to the trauma caused by the disappearance of a loved one.

In Mexico, there is no standard national register assembling all data on unidentified bodies, physical data gathered during autopsies and allegations of disappearances made by family members. There are also no standard forms for compiling information about missing persons and unidentified bodies for the purposes of identification. The various agencies in the country use different forms or different methods in their investigations, which makes it virtually impossible to trace, collate and compare results and to consult records at a nation al level.

 Why is this event being convened by the ICRC and the Federal District Supreme Court of Justice?  

The aim is to help to reduce the number of unidentified bodies in Mexico.

However, the more immediate objectives of the First National Meeting of Medical Forensic Services were to explore the possibility of establishing a single register of missing persons and unidentified bodies, together with a handbook and a standard procedure. Ideally, a national IT platform should also be established to allow real-time tracing activities to be carried out and comparisons to be made so as to narrow possible identifications down, thus strengthening the capacity of the institutions to identify unidentified bodies throughout the country.

Specialists from Colombia and Chile were invited to the meeting, as those countries have developed procedures and standard national tracing systems for the identification of dead bodies with very promising results. This is particularly true of Colombia, where the system has been used to locate and identify dead people reported missing. The invitation was also extended to Spanish forensic experts specializing in tracing and identifying persons reported missing during disasters and in the Spanish civil war.

 Did the meeting come up to expectations?  

The meeting far exceeded the organizers’ and participants’ expectations. It was nothing more or less than the very first meeting of directors and/or representatives of the Medical Forensic Services in the whole of Mexico. The participants approved a series of proposals to improve the national capacity to manage and identify dead bodies and to improve the attention given to family members and claimants. That includes developing a national procedure for th e identification of dead bodies, promoting a national register of missing persons and unidentified bodies and strengthening communication and cooperation between the Medical Forensic Services and other agencies dealing with this and other matters.

In addition, those present took part in a complex simulation of recovering and identifying dead bodies and dealing with family members. That exercise ensured that all participants were familiar with international procedures and forms which could be of considerable practical use for Mexico.