War is an old but recurrent manmade plague.
Some might even argue that it is necessary.
Regardless of how well we think we understand armed conflicts, most of what really happens remains hidden. Many of the survivors, whether victims, perpetrators or witnesses, keep silent because of factors such as self-censorship, self-interest, fear, lack of protection, lack of resources, memory flaws, trauma and pain.
Specialists in the reconstruction of past events, e.g. the forensic science community at large, can reinstall a sense of justice by bringing answers to the five Ws that torment those with the need to know:
What happened and how?
When and where?
Who was involved and why?
Dr Lisa Smith from the University of Leicester (uol) is spearheading a project that combats one of the most destructive weapons of war: sexual violence.
The victims are mostly women but also include children and men. Unfortunately, the relevant international judicial bodies against such offences receive relatively few reports. Specific reasons for underreporting include obstructed access to medical facilities in conflict zones, a lack of training of the relevant personnel, and ideological obstacles.
This is why a group of researchers in criminology and genetics, led by Dr. Smith, are developing new ways to collect physical evidence related to sexual aggression in conflict zones. The project will increase the chances of identifying the aggressors before international courts of justice.
The initiative was introduced at the United Nations’ UK launch of HeForShe on September 29 in front of a fully-occupied Peter Williams Lecture Theatre (capacity: 485) at uol.
Professor Mark Jobling from the Department of Genetics commented on the potential of forensic identification through genetics: “The technology for DNA testing is powerful and robust, and in the UK, where we have a functional criminal justice system, we’re accustomed to its routine use supporting convictions for rape. We aim to be smart about how we apply it, so we can also make a real difference in the more dangerous and chaotic situations that exist in conflict zones.”
Armed groups in many areas are reported to rape their victims as part of a war strategy that causes long-term subordination as well as the destruction of human bonds, leading to the dismantling of communities and forceful displacement. From the legal (where the courts are concerned) and strategic (where the perpetrators are concerned) perspectives, this war crime is often one component of a larger pattern of crime against humanity or even genocide.
Indeed, forcing people away from their homes is a massive and unfortunately classical criminal strategy that seems to recur in various forms and scales across conflicts. At the 2015 Royal Society’s conference entitled ‘the paradigm shift for UK forensic science’, professor Sir Geoffrey Nice, war crimes’ expert from the International Criminal Court, asserted that forceful human displacement is often the end goal of warlords in order to transform demographic realities on the ground.
The investigation of war crimes, in general, is at another level of abstraction and is often contested by exceedingly powerful organisations. The main questions in such cases revolve around the responsibilities within armed groups and the whereabouts of missing/unidentified individuals. The types of evidence currently and inconsistently available to investigators are not limited to but usually include photographs, videos and sound recordings, as well as mass graves.
The latter is a special type of crime scene that requires the deployment of a multidisciplinary team: Archaeology helps in detecting and excavating the scattered or buried evidence. Forensic archaeologists are the specialists in outdoor crime scenes and are trained to understand and work within soil matrices as well as with all types of buried materials. They can survey the landscape, and analyse the geographic information before inspecting the areas of interest in cooperation with police officers.
Archaeologists are usually accompanied by physical anthropologists to ensure a state-of-the-art recovery of human remains. The teams work in tandem to estimate the date of burial, to reflect on the bodies’ dispositions and to draw conclusions about the actions that took place. A solid education in forensic anthropology would allow the expert to differentiate between the cause of death and the damage that occurs post-mortem as a result of body decomposition or grave disruption. Forensic pathologists can also be consulted. Prior to the confirmatory DNA testing, the process of identification can begin with an estimation of the ages and sexes of the individuals, since this can often be done on the basis of physical examination alone.
While the processes of excavation and analysis are methodical and reliable, they are also challenged on every level. This also applies to identification through genetics, as DNA in these cases has been irreversibly damaged and contaminated due to various environmental and intrusive factors. Our INTREPID forensics project aims to tackle this issue by establishing comprehensive and rigorous methodology, starting with the biological sampling, and down to the interpretation of profiles, working with high-end technology in assiduously clean laboratory conditions.
Authorities have a natural tendency to challenge investigations of war crimes and crimes against humanity for a number of reasons. Even when governments are not directly targeted by the investigation itself, the fact of stirring past unrest seems to put those who maintain order in an uncomfortable position. When the results of the Argentinian government’s own investigation into the state massacre of civilians (1974-1983) suffered from a lack of popular trust, a group of students, which included today’s renowned forensic anthropologist Luis Fondebrider, started by raising the public’s awareness about the issue. Thanks to the resulting pressure groups, they were able to re-examine the evidence, bringing a new level of rigour and accountability to the conclusions. In fact, this group eventually transferred its expertise in forensic anthropology to more than 30 countries around the world to assist in the investigation of war crimes.
The international community, which today seems to eye the Middle East, supported the Latin-American team. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organisations such as Act for the Disappeared have been collaborating together in an effort to exhume and investigate the Lebanese civil war’s mass graves (1975-1990). Similarly to how they previously migrated from Buenos Aires to Guatemala City, these efforts will likely naturally migrate in the future, from Beirut to Damascus and Baghdad.