Humanitarian forensics: Applying forensic science for humanitarian purposes

We ensure that universally recognized forensic standards are applied for the treatment and identification of the deceased, the search for missing people, and in any other situation where forensic science would address an issue of humanitarian concern.

In Peru, relatives of individuals missing for 30 years ceremoniously bury 12 individuals whose remains have been found and identified.

The principles that guide our work

As a result of armed conflict, other situations of violence and natural disasters, people can get separated from their families, go missing or die. They may also become victims of ill-treatment and sexual violence, especially in the context of detention, displacement and migration. Medicolegal systems and forensic institutions play an essential role in addressing these issues of humanitarian concern. Humanitarian forensic action is the application of forensic science and investigative principles to humanitarian work. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only organization to use forensic science for exclusively humanitarian purposes.

Treating the dead with respect

When people die in these circumstances, their bodies must be handled respectfully, and the remains of unknown individuals must be identified. Clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing people requires that the search and identification processes adhere to important forensic principles and standards. These not only ensure that the humanity of the deceased is respected and prevent them from going missing, but also bring answers to loved ones who endure unimaginable emotional pain.

Strengthening the local response

Medicolegal systems and forensic institutions play an essential role in state responses to issues of humanitarian concern, such as searching for missing people, managing the dead and keeping families duly informed. We support countries’ medicolegal systems to develop policies and regulations, implement best forensic practices and improve skills and working conditions.

Forensic science for humanitarian action

We provide high-quality and accountable forensic programmes designed to meet professional standards. We operate either through direct action on the request of authorities and beneficiaries, or we provide advice and support to states and other relevant entities in their response. 

Advocating for the dead under international humanitarian law

We remind states and other relevant actors about their obligations under international humanitarian law with regard to the protection and dignified treatment of the dead. 

Finding answers

We support authorities in implementing effective processes for the search for and identification of missing or deceased persons. We promote a multidisciplinary approach towards human identification, ensuring data protection and providing tools and software for information management.

Engaging with parties to conflict

We work with armed forces and non-state armed groups to ensure that the deceased are searched for, recovered, identified and properly buried. Additionally, our role as a neutral intermediary helps affected families get the remains of their loved ones back to give them a proper funeral.

Preparing for emergencies and responding to mass fatalities

We promote planning for mass fatalities as part of state emergency preparedness and response. We provide training on the proper management of the dead in emergencies, including where there may be unexploded weapons, and provide the authorities with forensic equipment or material, as needed.

Defending the rights of detainees

We promote the application of forensic science in all deaths in custody and in the documentation of ill-treatment in order to uphold the rights of all detainees.

Promoting social, cultural and religious diversity

We work with communities, religious groups and other fields of expertise to ensure that emergency responses and international protocols duly respect specific religious practices and cultural traditions.