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Reflections on the scientific documentation of human rights violations

Politically-motivated disappearances and deaths

Although it was the wars in the former Yugoslavia which finally
attracted global attention to these issues, politically-motivated kidnappings,
torture and extra-judicial executions have been widespread in Third World
countries for over forty years. In a high proportion of cases the bodies of the
disappeared are hidden, or attempts are made to destroy them. Cadavers left
out in the open will usually be discovered soon after the time of death. But
when an attempt has been made to conceal a body, usually through burial,
discovery will tend to come about in one of the following ways:
• the body has been buried in a very shallow grave and becomes exposed
through the foraging of animals or other environmental processes;
• the body is uncovered by accident: during road building for example,
when a shovel or other equipment strikes bone;
• finally – often years after death – remains may be found by investigators
who are actively looking for them, after a change of government or political climate has made such investigations permissible, even desirable.
In most countries said to be “dealing with the past” and where investigations have been conducted following periods of political violence, the
wishes of victims’ families have often been overlooked by investigators. In
particular, the desire to establish responsibility for the crime and see justice
done in a broader sense can be regarded as taking second place to the more
immediate task in hand.
Consideration of the psychological, judicial, political, economic and
humanitarian consequences of exhuming — and maybe identifying — human
remains is a vital part of the beginning of any investigation. What appears as
a clear-cut scientific and technical operation may involve complex and
ambiguous boundaries, as well as unexpected ethical dilemmas.
Legal necessities, humanitarian necessities

The mechanisms used to investigate human rights violations in the
recent past have varied from one country to another. Broadly speaking, there
have been two kinds of instruments: truth commissions, both national and
international; and tribunals, both local and international. Truth commissions tend to pursue a historical line of enquiry, while tribunals follow a
juridical process.
Between 1984 and 1987, Argentina became one of the first countries
to use these instruments to initiate extensive investigations, exhuming the
remains of large numbers of disappeared people, establishing the cause and

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