While international criminal tribunals have increasingly relied on forensic evidence to support prosecutions for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, these investigations have resulted in only a small number of the deceased being identified because of evidentiary needs or a lack of resources. It is argued that an international network of forensic scientists should be established to develop standards in this field. These should be guided by the principle that identification of the missing is just as important as collecting evidence.
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.