Missing persons: a major humanitarian concern

28-08-2009 Interview

Families of missing persons suffer greatly owing to uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones who have disappeared as a result of armed conflicts or internal violence. Morris Tidball-Binz, an ICRC forensic doctor, talks about the role of forensics in clarifying the fate of missing persons.

  Morris Tidball-Binz    

     One does not normally associate forensics with humanitarian action. How does this science help the ICRC to fulfil its humanitarian mandate?  

Under international humanitarian law, parties to an armed conflict must ensure the proper and dignified handling of human remains and help clarify the fate of missing people. 

Forensic sciences are recognized as indispensable for the proper recovery, handling and identification of dead people reported missing, as well as for identifying the living.

The ICRC is the only humanitarian organization with forensic expertise. It has a team of experts specialized in investigating cases of missing persons that offers technical advice and supports forensic capacity building to help provide families with answers.

 How can forensic sciences contribute toward clarifying the fate of people missing and why is it important for the families?   

Forensic sciences can provide objective answers about the identity and fate of missing people, whether they are dead or alive. These sciences rely on several disciplines, increasingly used in combination by multidisciplinary forensic teams. Among these disciplines are anthropology and archaeology, pathology, finger printing, dentistry and genetics, including forensic DNA analysis.

"Forensic sciences are recognized as indispensable for the proper recovery, handling and identification of dead people reported missing, as well as for identifying the living." 

Each of these sciences can help uncover key information necessary for identifying a missing person. A pathologist will conduct an autopsy to shed light on an individual’s physical characteristics and the cause and circumstances of death. He can build a profile of the individual and then compare it to information on a missing person, hoping to make a match. 

A forensic anthropologist analyses human skeletal remains to establish a person's age, sex, stature or ancestry, among many other things. 

A forensic geneticist can compare the DNA of a child who has been separated from its family with that of biological relatives to confirm the child's identity. DNA analysis can also help identify human remains.

Forensic archaeologists help ensure that human remains and associated evidence are properly recovered to ensure that as much information as possible is obtained to help with the identification.

The use of forensic sciences for clarifying the fate of missing persons is relatively new. The first official genetic data-bank for the search of missing persons was established in Argentina in 1987 in direct response to the needs of families. Grandmothers of children who had disappeared with their parents called on the international scientific community to help develop new forensic methods and techniques, particularly in forensic genetics, to be used in searching for, identifying and recovering their grandchildren. The incredible determination of these women laid the ground work for the development and application of a new branch of forensic sciences which is now applied around the world. 

 What are the challenges of using forensic sciences to identify missing persons?  

There are several challenges. During and immediately after a conflict, searching for missing people is often one of many pressing needs, but rarely a priority. Conducting forensic investigations into missing persons requires financial and human resources that are not always readily available in the aftermath of a conflict. 

©ICRC / B.Heger / pe-e-00118     
  Accomarca district, Peru. Exhumation in progress. An estimated 200 people disappeared in Accomarca during the armed conflict.    

     Missing people are often from impoverished communities and may not have medical or dental records which can greatly facilitate identification.

Forensic investigations can be risky as they can provoke threats or attacks from different factions. Other hazards faced by investigators include exposure to explosive remnants of war.

To conduct forensic investigations of missing persons, countries need to invest in human and technical resources which may be well beyond their means. To address this issue worldwide the ICRC offers training, equipment and advice to help build sustainable local forensic capacities. 

For several years we have been providing forensic training to lo cal practitioners in Iraq and equipment to medical/legal-services for the proper handling and identification of human remains. In Iran, we have provided training and forensic DNA capacity to support practitioners and institutions involved in identifying the war dead. The ICRC also assists both countries in their joint effort to recover and identify the remains of people missing as a result of the first Gulf War. The assistance includes a database developed by the organization to collect, manage and analyze large volumes of forensic data.

In the past few years, intense media attention on forensic sciences has often wrongly portrayed them as an infallible tool. Dealing with the expectations thus created can be a challenge. Forensic sciences cannot solve all problems. Even with adequate resources it might be impossible to recover or identify some bodies. This may be very difficult for the bereaved and even for the public to understand or accept.

 Where is forensics being applied to identify people and are there any contexts where has it been most successful?  

The problem of missing persons is universal. Wherever there has been an armed conflict, people have gone missing. The problem can last for generations. A case in point is Spain, where families are still searching for answers about their loved ones missing as a result of the civil war, and using forensic sciences increasingly to recover and identify human remains.  

The case of Cyprus, where the ICRC offered advice and support in establishing a sustainable all-Cypriot team of forensic scientists, is a success story. The Cypriot forensic team, comprising Greek and Turkish Cypriot forensic practitioners, integrates different disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology and genetics. The team works with the families of missing persons and is a model of best practice.

In the Balkans thousands of missing people have been recovered and identified through large-scale forensic investigations using novel forensic methods and technology.

In the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon, are making remarkable efforts to provide answers to families who lost relatives as a result of armed conflicts in the region.

Investigations continue in several countries of Latin America, such as Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala and Peru.

Many countries in Africa including Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocc o, Sierra Leone and South Africa have launched forensic initiatives.

The search for missing persons in Asia has included forensic investigations in several countries, including East Timor, Nepal, The Philippines and Sri Lanka.

In most countries and contexts where investigations are underway for the search of missing persons, the ICRC offers technical advice and supports forensic capacity building. The objective is to help bring answers to grief-stricken families and uphold their right to know.