Protection of the deceased through forensic action

The ICRC promotes and supports forensic best practices, to address the needs of affected people. This includes ensuring the proper treatment and identification of the deceased and to help prevent and resolve the tragedy of people unaccounted for because of armed conflict and other situations of armed violence, disasters and migration. 

© Didier Revol / ICRC

As a leading humanitarian agency, the ICRC is working daily in situations of conflict and violence around the world. With an increasingly complex operational environment, the ICRC is using forensics to help strengthen its humanitarian response for affected people, whether that be in ensuring the protection of the deceased or in efforts to return their identity.

Working hand in hand with forensic practitioners and institutions to strengthen their capacity is a core focus of the ICRC, through training, infrastructural support, or advisory services. There is a growing recognition of the role forensic science can play in addressing the needs of affected people in the humanitarian sphere.

© Ingy Sedky / ICRC

Through its team of forensic specialists, the ICRC works globally to help ensure the dead are protected and to uphold the right of bereaved families to know what happened to their loved ones. Today, the ICRC has experts from domains including forensic genetics, anthropology, odontology, archaeology, and pathology working as part of their forensic team.

Forensic response during the COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICRC adapted its existing activities and programmes to ensure we helped address the needs globally concerning the deceased, their families, and those working to protect and manage the victims.


When people die during war, disaster or migration, their bodies must be properly managed and accounted for. The remains of individuals must be found, recovered and identified to help prevent and resolve the tragedy of people unaccounted for as a result of conflict and other situations of armed violence. This applies now as much as ever, within the context of the pandemic.

The ICRC developed guidance with recommendations for authorities, forensic institutions and deathcare workers for the dignified management of the deceased during the COVID-19 crisis.


How we help in situations of conflict, disasters and migration

The ICRC's forensic services are adapted to needs, and part of an integrated approach to humanitarian action that includes matters such as protection activities, legal guidance, psychosocial support, health services, economic assistance, access to water and suitable habitation, and reducing the humanitarian impact of weapon contamination.

© Alejandra Jiminez / ICRC

Armed conflict

During times of active conflict, the immediate focus of forensic programmes is to ensure the effective location and recovery of the deceased in a way which allows for their identification and return to their families. Our work in Nagorno Karabakh reinforces the value of this work.

An effective process of identification, including timely and transparent information shared with families of the deceased is needed, and ICRC supports practitioners and institutions to achieve sustainable practices.


© Boris Heger / ICRC


Following large-scale disasters, such as hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, the ICRC works with National Societies and the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (IFRC) to assess medico-legal and community needs and to advise authorities in the dignified management of remains. This includes providing guidance on searching for the deceased, temporarily storing remains, collecting ante-mortem information, and organizing final disposition of bodies.

© Daniele Volpe / ICRC


In South Africa, forensic capacity-building efforts have largely centred on training courses and the significant number of unidentified bodies buried each year. Authorities presume that the bodies include irregular migrants from many countries experiencing conflict and violence, poverty, unemployment, and other societal challenges. 

Efforts since 2016 have resulted in the implementation of the Missing and Deceased Migrants and their Families Project. The project is implemented in collaboration with the responsible authorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Through the years, the project has demonstrated that strong collaboration between the ICRC and local forensic service providers leads to improved identification practices and results. This substantially reduces the number of persons being buried as unidentified in some of the local mortuaries.