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Katyn and Switzerland – Forensic investigators and investigations in humanitarian crises, 1920-2007

06-11-2009 News Release 09/217

Geneva (ICRC) – The use of forensics in humanitarian crises poses numerous challenges for forensic scientists and other specialists who investigate war crimes and human rights violations.

“The work of the medical expert has an ethical dimension, in addition to the purely technical. Forensic scientists must be able to work independently and maintain their neutrality. Before they commence an investigation, they must be able to assess its political, legal and above all its humanitarian consequences,” explained ICRC forensic anthropologist Ute Hofmeister.

    These are the conclusions drawn from analysing contemporary forensic practice and the issues surrounding forensic investigation throughout the 20th century. The ICRC and the University of Geneva have conduc ted joint research on the subject, and the fruits of their studies formed the subject of a colloquium. The proceedings of that colloquium have now been published by Georg under the tile Katyn and Switzerland – Forensic investigators and investigations in humanitarian crises, 1920-2007 .

The experiences of François Naville clearly illustrate the dilemma between ethics and the interests of the State. As a forensic scientist, Naville participated in the commission of enquiry set up by Germany in 1943 to investigate the massacre in Katyn (Poland) of over 25,000 officers and other members of the Polish elite, seen as being hostile to Communist ideology. The commission found the Soviet Union responsible for the massacre.

Numerous forensic investigations have raised the question of the roles played by specialists (especially medical specialists), States and humanitarian organizations in dealing with war crimes. Examples include investigations into the use of prohibited weapons, the treatment of civilians in wartime or the interrogation and treatment of prisoners of war, particularly in the USSR during the 1920s, in Abyssinia, at Hiroshima, in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia. They also illustrate the diplomatic, military, political and ethical constraints applying to forensics from the 1920s up to the present.

“There is still much to be done with respect to the rules concerning the work of forensics specialists during humanitarian crises – and compliance with those rules,” commented Ute Hofmeister. “If forensics is to help prevent future violations, it must above all fulfil a humanitarian objective: it must enable people to exercise their right to know what has happened to members of their families.”

As ICRC historian François Pitteloud points out, “Building up historical knowledge of the events surrounding the Katyn massacre is a way of examining the past, in order to understand the attitudes of humanitarian agencies and governments when confronted with war crimes, and to expand our thinking on forensics in today’s humanitarian crises. It is also a way of paying tribute to the victims of the massacre and to their families.”

  • The proceedings of the colloquium have just been published in French and English under the title of Katyn and Switzerland – Forensic investigations and investigators in humanitarian crises, 1920-2007 . The proceedings are illustrated. Price: CHF 48.
  • For interviews with specialists, please contact the press department of the ICRC or of the publisher, Georg.

  • For further information concerning the role of forensics in armed conflict, see the interview with Morris Tidball-Binz .
  Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18
  Michael Balavoine, Georg Éditeur SA, tel: +41 22 702 93 11 or +41 79 759 54 78
  Prof. Antoine Fleury, Université de Genève, tel: +41 22 793 33 49,  

 Note for media:  

 The Katyn massacre was perpetrated by the NKVD – the political police of the Soviet Union – in April and May 1940, in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, and in other parts of the western USSR. This massacre of over 25,000 Polish officers and members of the elite, seen as hostile to communist ideology, was a “class cleansing,” to quote Russian historian Victor Zaslavsky. Soviet propaganda blamed Germany for Katyn until the review started in 1989 by Mikhail Gorbachev and continued in 1992 by Boris Yeltsin.