How does ICRC use forensic science for humanitarian purposes?

“We advocate for the protection and dignified treatment of the dead after conflict, disasters, or other situations of violence…”
--Denise Abboud, ICRC Regional Forensic Manager.

Is forensic sciences useful in humanitarian work? How is it applied and to what purposes? To get more information on these questions and more, we recently had a chat with Denise Abboud, our Regional Forensic Manager. Excerpts.

  • Can you tell us what forensic science is?

Forensic science is the application of science to the field of law. It normally depends on the legal framework, whether it is the application of science to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Criminal Law, or domestic laws of a certain country.


  • How does the ICRC use forensics and in what circumstances?

The ICRC is the only organization internationally that has forensic science solely for humanitarian purposes. In the ICRC, we speak of forensic humanitarian action, and what it entails. We advocate for the protection and dignified treatment of the dead after conflict, disasters, or other situations of violence. Another application of forensic humanitarian action is to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and to identify unidentified human remains. ICRC is involved in the process of search, recovery, examination, and the identification of the person until the handover of the remains to their family.

 We help the authorities to build their capacities in this field to ensure that missing persons are properly identified and handed over to their families for closure.

Moreover, ICRC uses forensics in the documentation of ill-treatment in detention and this is where the forensic doctors, who wrote the Istanbul Protocol, trained so many forensic doctors around the world, including prison doctors in order to examine detainees. 


  • How can the use of forensics help solve problems in an armed conflict?

As an example, ICRC chairs the Tripartite Mechanism post-conflict between Iraq and Kuwait for more than fifteen years now. In this tripartite mechanism, forensic evidence is used to identify human remains that go back to the eighties conflict. Another example is the role of the ICRC in the conflict situation in Yemen, where we engage in dialogue with the authorities about the proper and dignified management of the dead to ensure that they are well documented and temporarily stored until identification is possible. Additionally, the ICRC helps parties to the conflict to organize a dignified transfer of bodies between each other.

 Moreover, for the past 10 years in Iraq, the forensic unit of the ICRC has been engaged with the parties involved to ensure a proper mechanism for the clarification of the fate and whereabouts of the high number of missing persons in Iraq.

 Furthermore, the ICRC works on the issue of migrants who get separated, die or go missing on migratory routes. Forensics is used to ensure the deceased migrants are also properly handled and treated with dignity until the bodies are identified and repatriated back to their families. 

 Another application of forensics in the ICRC is in mass fatality response planning. The ICRC forensic unit ensures that proper mass fatality response plans are put in place and executed after a certain natural disaster, conflict, or any other situation of violence.


  • Tell us about the satisfaction your role gives you?

What gives me pleasure in this job is that I am able to use science in a humanitarian context. We go back to science and the reason why I studied forensics in the first place, is that  I believe science itself is neutral and impartial, therefore,, using science for humanitarian purposes improves and enhances the neutrality of the work we are doing and ensures a scientific approach to predicting and responding to large scale incidents that require a humanitarian response. Another satisfaction I get from families that received closure after years of waiting for their missing family members.

Moreover, working in different contexts to ensure mass fatalities response is in place is a very important part of my job and brings me satisfaction to see it implemented whenever needed as a proper response prevents people from going missing and ensures families are respected and provided with answers about their loved ones


  • What is the future of forensic science?

In this region, there is still a lot of capacity building to be done. We have been trying to build academic programs in forensics in order to ensure that those who are practicing forensic science in the NAME region context have access to proper education and training to enhance their skills and be able to act on them. This is why we are currently working with the forensic authorities of one of the countries in the region who now have a long-lasting experience in human identification in forensic setups to use their expertise and build on it in the region through roundtables and discussions with practitioners and academics in order to see how we can build altogether a program that is useful for this region and in the Arabic language. The ICRC is trying to build a center of expertise around the issues of the separated, dead, and missing in this region. This center will hopefully help authorities, families and communities to address the issues related to those who get separated, die, or go missing in conflict, disasters, migration or other situation of violence