The missing in the aftermath of war: When do the needs of victims’ families and international war crimes tribunals clash?

The international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have increasingly relied on forensic scientists to collect physical evidence of mass killings associated with acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Typically, these investigations have resulted in only a small number of the deceased being identified because the tribunals lack the resources to conduct thorough investigations of the missing or because the evidentiary needs do not require that all of the victims be identified. Meanwhile, the families of the missing are left in a limbo of ambiguous loss, torn between hope and grief, unable to return to the past, nor plan for the future. Without bodies and funerals, they often are unable to vizualize the death of their loved ones and accept it as real. Under the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, families have the right to know the fate of their relatives. To facilitate exercise of this right, an international network of forensic scientists should be established to develop and disseminate guidelines and standards of practice and coordinate humanitarian investigations into the fate of missing persons. The network should be guided by the principle that the identification of the missing is just as important as providing evidence for criminal investigations.

About the authors

Eric Stover
Faculty Director

Eric Stover is Faculty Director of the Human Rights Center and Adjunct Professor of Law and Public Health, University of California, Berkeley. He was an Open Society Fellow in 2009–2010.

Rachel Shigekane
Senior Program Officer

Rachel Shigekane is Senior Program Officer at the Human Rights Center and Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies.