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The Missing - Human remains


Three workshops held between February and July 2002

pdf fileFull summary of the proceedings (PDF file/ 2068 Kb - Help)  

The Missing - Human remains and forensic sciences 
 February - April 2002  

The workshop, managed on the ICRC extranet, drew on the experience of four experts in forensic sciences who have worked extensively in the domain of management, exhumation and identification of human remains. A number of documents were generated. The role and responsibilities of forensic scientists were considered on two levels: the first on the legal and ethical level and the second at a field or operational level. The experts were also consulted about situations where human remains must be managed by non-specialists such as soldiers working under a UN mandate.

The Missing - Human remains: law, politics and ethics 
 23-24 May 2002  

The workshop consisted of 20 experts, the majority of whom came from the domain of forensic sciences. Using documents prepared by the electronic workshops " Human remains & forensic sciences" and    "The legal protection of personal data and human remains"    as background, the experts addressed two principle themes:


 Exhumation and identification of remains: the tension between justice and identification  

The workshop recognized the rights of families to know the fate of their relatives and that the identification of remains is necessary to uphold these rights.   The role that forensic specialists plays in the domestic context cannot be automatically extrapolated to their role when dealing with missing people; there are some important differences. In the domestic context, forensic specialists work as part of the legal process. Identification of remains is an integral part of criminal investigation and goes hand-in-hand with ascertaining the cause of death. However, in a context involving missing people, especially when the investigation involves the exhumation of mass graves, the cause of death may already be known or be obvious, and identification may be the most difficult and resource-intensive task. While forensic specialists may feel comfortable from an ethical perspective investigating violations of international humanitarian law or human rights, their role must also extend to the right of families to know the fate of their relatives. It is necessary to ensure not only that justice is done but also that the best is done for the families and this involves identification of remains.

The workshop also considered to the need for an international body of forensic scientists to govern such issues as standards, qualifications, audit and contracts of employment.


 Criteria for identification and the role of DNA analysis  

The workshop defined identification as " individualization by the attribution of birth name or other appropriate name to human remains " and drew up recommendations about who bears ultimate responsibility for identification.

Identification can be concluded in three ways. Visual, normal or customary means such as relatives or acquaintances viewing the remains, or the possession of identity documents or tags. The weight of evidence or circumstances such as the matching of antemortem data with information gathered during the examination. And finally scientific or objective means such as dental records, fingerprints or DNA.

This is not necessarily a hierarchy but normal practice is that, as identification becomes more difficult, the emphasis moves from the first means, through the second and then to the third. Whenever possible, a visual (normal or customary) identification should be supplemented with one of the other two methods. Identif ication of human remains through DNA typing should be undertaken when other investigative techniques of identification are not adequate.

The workshop made some general recommendations about the use of DNA analysis in the context of the Missing. At the same time, it recognized that identification programmes in which DNA has primacy are near-future possibilities; the workshop identified certain conditions that should be fulfilled before such programmes are established.

The Missing - Human remains: management of remains and of information on the dead 
 10-12 July 2002  

The workshop was attended by 26 experts, the majority of whom came from the domain of forensic sciences. The central focus of the workshop was the interaction between expertise, standards and the constraints imposed in any given context.

Using documents prepared by the electronic workshops " Human remains & forensic sciences," and "The legal protection of personal data and human remains" and   the formal workshop "Human remains: law, politics and ethics" as background, the experts made recommendations in relation to a number of themes:

  • A standardized format for recording the findings of an autopsy and for performing examination of remains under difficult circumstances.

  • A standardized format for recording antemortem data.

  • The workshop recommended that the two formats be determined and agreed upon by experts in a future working group as a continuation of the current process launched by the ICRC on The Missing and that the two formats be compatible in relation to language, terminology, software, and training of personnel. The same working group will determine a minimum standard of practice for forensic scientists working in all contexts involving missing people.

  • The workshop was able to make recommendations about the most appropriate means or combination of means of identification in different contexts. This included an examination of the operational feasibility of identification using DNA analysis for identification.

  • The consideration of operational feasibility of DNA analysis was driven by legal and ethical principles arrived at in previous workshops. Firm recommendations were made about factors such as cost, logistics, communication to the affected families and communities, responsibilities for errors and accreditation of laboratories.

  • A commitment was given by two members of the workshop to enhance existing guidelines for exhumation.

  • The extent of involvement of families in the exhumation and identification of remains generated much debate. Participation in the process could be both beneficial and harmful to the investigation whilst at the same time healing or traumatic for the families themselves. All agreed that in relation to this subject, a degree of involvement was necessary but this would depend entirely on the context, culture and society in question.

The workshop examined the guidelines from other workshops regarding situations whe n non-specialists must manage human remains. The input of forensic specialists was useful in that their recommendations fine-tuned existing guidelines in a way that would ensure maximum preservation of information that could lead to later identification.