RICR Décembre IRRC December 2002 Vol. 84 No 848
Reflections on the scientific documentation of
human rights violations
The recovery, analysis and identification of the remains of people
killed in natural and man-made disasters and outbreaks of political violence
have become a key element of both humanitarian operations and judicial
investigations in the last thirty years. Governmental and non-governmental
bodies, both domestic and international, have become actively involved in
such procedures through the participation of forensic doctors, police, lawyers
and firemen and the use of other resources.
For the families of those who have disappeared, the uncertainty over
whether a loved one is dead or alive is agonizing. Such uncertainty is compounded when a disappearance is the result of political violence. After an
earthquake or a plane crash, the State is usually a prime mover in the search
for bodies. Families can normally turn to a State agency for information.
They will be offered support and sometimes psychological counselling. As
society mobilizes on their behalf, the tragedies of individual families are
transformed into a collective experience of loss. But where the State itself is
responsible for a disappearance, the family will suffer far greater uncertainty,
anguish and isolation. They also face the prospect that the agents responsible for this kind of disappearance — usually the security forces — will conceal the victim and may even attempt to eliminate all traces of the body
This article examines the particular challenges to be overcome in
searching for and identifying those victims whose disappearance and death is
a direct result of domestic political violence.
* Luis Fondebrider is a forensic anthropologist and member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team
(EAAF), a non-governmental organization that has worked since 1984 in human rights investigation, exhumation of graves, and analysis of skeletal remains. During that time, the EAAF has conducted and/or participated in forensic investigations of human rights violations in 27 countries.