Protection of the dead through forensic action

The ICRC promotes and supports forensic best practices, to address the needs of affected people. This includes ensuring the proper management and identification of the dead 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 dead or in efforts to give back 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.

©Maxym Levin / 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

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the ICRC is adapting its existing activities and programmes to ensure we can help address the growing needs globally concerning the dead, their families, and those working to protect and manage the dead.

©Thomas Glass / ICRC

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 armed conflict and other situations of armed violence. This applies now as much as ever, within the context of the pandemic.

The ICRC has developed guidance with recommendations for authorities and forensic institutions for the dignified management of the dead 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

The main target population and humanitarian needs considered in the forensic programme for Ukraine are the dead resulting from the armed conflict in the Donbass and their families. These two categories require protection to ensure the dignified and respectful management of the dead.


©Boris Heger / ICRC 

Additionally, an effective process of identification, including timely and transparent information shared with families of the deceased, and the missing from the conflict and their families, is needed. The scope of the forensic programme in Ukraine ensures the effective search for missing persons and responds to the need of the families to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives and other pertinent needs.


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 dead, 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 methods. This substantially reduces the number of persons being buried as unidentified in some of the local mortuaries.