RICR Décembre IRRC December 2002 Vol. 84 No 848
manner of death, then attempting to identify them and return them to their
families. Subsequently other countries in the region, first Chile, then later
Guatemala and El Salvador, underwent similar processes. In the mid-nineties
Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa followed suit, emulated soon after by
States of the former Yugoslavia : first Croatia, then Bosnia and Kosovo,
where investigations are continuing today. Every human rights investigation
of disappearances and executions now has a forensic component.
The use of forensic science in the documentation of human rights violations has raised questions and spawned social situations without precedent
in most peoples’ experience. These are not ordinary crimes, but extraordinary, massive violations, in which the State is often the main perpetrator.
Forensic analyses carried out by local professionals may therefore be compromised, a risk explained in part by the fact that in many Third World
countries and fledgling democracies, political and executive powers can
constrain the functioning of the judiciary, impeding the way that justice is
administered. Moreover, the families of victims tend not to trust functionaries of the same State which abducted their loved ones, even if a new
regime is in power.
The participation of the United Nations makes a huge difference in
the course of an investigation. When the UN intervenes directly in an
enquiry (as, for example, in the Truth Commissions in El Salvador and
Guatemala, the international ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia
and Rwanda, and the UN Mission to East Timor) many political, financial
and logistic problems are resolved or circumvented. This in turn facilitates forensic investigation and analysis. The drawback is that relations
with the victims’ families become distorted, because they are often left
uninformed and excluded from the investigation process in a way which
would be unthinkable in the investigation of an “ordinary” domestic murder or disappearance. In our experience it is advisable to work with a local
organization which includes victims’ families as much as possible. Families
can be valuable sources of information and their rights should not be
diminished because their loved ones were the victims of mass, not individual, crimes.
Another aspect to consider is whether a judicial case can be built, or
whether it is preferable to simply retrieve the remains for humanitarian reasons. Here, it is worth reflecting on long-term implications. In many of the
places where these investigations take place, there is a power vacuum. Far
away from capital cities, the State’s presence may be diffuse and legislation