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Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity

Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity

by Adam Rosenblatt

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The mass graves from our long human history of genocide, massacres, and violent conflict form an underground map of atrocity that stretches across the planet's surface. In the past few decades, due to rapidly developing technologies and a powerful global human rights movement, the scientific study of those graves has become a standard facet of post-conflict international assistance. Digging for the Disappeared provides readers with a window into this growing but little-understood form of human rights work, including the dangers and sometimes unexpected complications that arise as evidence is gathered and the dead are named. Adam Rosenblatt examines the ethical, political, and historical foundations of the rapidly growing field of forensic investigation, from the graves of the "disappeared" in Latin America to genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. In the process, he illustrates how forensic teams strive to balance the needs of war crimes tribunals, transitional governments, and the families of the missing in post-conflict nations. Digging for the Disappeared draws on interviews with key players in the field to present a new way to analyze and value the work forensic experts do at mass graves, shifting the discussion from an exclusive focus on the rights of the living to a rigorous analysis of the care of the dead. Rosenblatt tackles these heady, hard topics in order to extend human rights scholarship into the realm of the dead and the limited but powerful forms of repair available for victims of atrocity.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804794916
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/20/2015
Series: Stanford Studies in Human Rights
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,086,688
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Adam Rosenblatt teaches Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College.

Read an Excerpt

Digging for the Disappeared

Forensic Science after Atrocity

By Adam Rosenblatt


Copyright © 2015 Adam Rosenblatt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9491-6


The Stakeholders in International Forensic Investigations

Putting Politics First

In 2000, my former supervisor at Physicians for Human Rights, the forensic anthropologist Bill Haglund, received one of many calls to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The defendant in this case was Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb military commander who would ultimately be found guilty of "aiding and abetting genocide" for his participation in the Srebrenica massacre of Bosniak men and boys. After presenting forensic evidence from the graves near Srebrenica, Haglund was cross-examined by a black-robed lawyer for the defense, Tomislav Višnjic. Through a simultaneous translator, Višnjic asked Haglund how he could be sure that the graves he had examined were the result of mass murder. "On the basis of what indicators has it been established, that it was an execution, a murder in the case of all of the bodies? Could causes of death also include suicide?" he asked. Haglund, exhibiting a flair for dark humor not uncommon in his profession, could not suppress a smirk as he answered. "I have investigated many suicides," he replied. "I have never seen an individual with their hands bound behind their back shoot themselves multiple times."

Višnjic's question invokes a counternarrative, one in which the victims themselves, and not his client, are somehow responsible for their own deaths. The counternarrative most likely represents not only an attempt to exonerate this particular defendant, but also taps into a culture of rumor, innuendo, backlash, and conspiracy that often springs up among communities living with atrocities in their midst. The darkly absurd image Haglund offers in response, of bound prisoners somehow reaching around to shoot themselves repeatedly, exposes the defense counsel's proffered counternarrative for what it is: a lie. Haglund, using the voice of forensic science, does not simply lend credibility to the charges of war crimes; he also severs the "looped circle" of falsity and "solipsism" that become part of the culture of atrocity and that can obscure even the starkest realities of violence.

These moments, in which a clear-cut scientific truth cuts through the lies of the unjust, are crucial reminders of the power of forensic science in the human rights context. They are not produced in a vacuum, however. Even Haglund's powerful testimony relied on evidence that was collected in one of the most complex, contentious, and politically charged post-conflict environments that forensic investigators have ever faced and whose full meaning in the broader story of the region is still debated today. Nearly two decades after the war, mass graves and the identification of the missing continue to exacerbate deep divisions and provoke complex negotiations in postwar Bosnia.

Jennifer Burrell and Mercedes Doretti write:

Forensic anthropology applied in the service of human rights ... takes place at the interstices of local political agendas, NGOs' wishes, national programs, and the work of international organizations. These gray spaces add another dimension to the role of forensic anthropologists: finding a middle ground on which to carry out investigations, a search that includes negotiations of roles, positions, politics, and funding requirements.

Throughout this book, I delve into examples of these sorts of negotiations, from places such as Chile, Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, and Spain. This chapter introduces some widespread common features that characterize the complex political landscape around mass graves, despite the very different contexts where they are found. The most important common threads in international forensic investigations, I suggest, are visible in three key groups that have a stake in these investigations: courts and tribunals, families and other mourners, and transitional governments.

Of course, all of these groups I call "stakeholders" are ultimately made up of individuals. One can recognize the ways in which certain institutions aggregate and organize individuals' moral, political, and practical claims upon forensic investigations, without making the mistake of thinking that any institution perfectly represents the interests and desires of all of its participants. Peer at any association of mourners, post-conflict government, or international tribunal for more than a minute, and you will see fissures, different voices, and competing goals.

There is little use in treating any one of these stakeholders as analytically more important than any of the others—though, like most forensic teams themselves, I do accord special ethical status to the claims of families of the missing and other mourners. Another dynamic that occurs across all of these stakeholders is the discrepancy, often quite large, between what they hope and expect from forensic investigations, on the one hand, and the results that forensic teams are able to produce, on the other. This gap emerges in part because so much of the human rights community's optimistic post-conflict vocabulary, terms such as "reconciliation" and "closure," sets hopelessly unrealistic goalposts. The achievements of forensic investigations are often folded into larger, very contentious processes, such as war crimes trials and truth commissions, or they are witnessed by only a few experts and mourners in private moments, such as when a case worker arrives in a family's living room to tell them their loved one has finally been identified. The disappointments of the work—the clashes with family members, the allegations of bias, the graves not exhumed and bodies never found, the misidentifications—are, in the meantime, often very public.

Forensic Investigations and Stakeholders, across Contexts

In nearly every place they work, forensic teams have some agency in deciding—even through omission, and even when they would prefer not to—whose voices they will listen to most closely and whose interests they will prioritize with usually quite limited resources. Decisions about priorities both impact, and are shaped by, organizational mandates and funding sources, the plan for the exhumation, the time and resources allotted to it, the type of personnel that constitute a particular team, and conditions on the ground, from bad weather to death threats to hunger-striking families of the missing.

If a forensic team plans on identifying many individual dead bodies and repatriating their remains to families, for example, it must include people trained to interview the living family members and gather information about the deceased. If identifications will be made using DNA, someone must take samples from living relatives, manage a database, and inform family members with sensitivity when a body has been identified. Gathering evidence of war crimes may, by contrast, require ballistics experts, or people who can identify the tire treads of different vehicles going to and from the gravesite. The need for these particular experts may affect what organization or organizations are contacted, but these organizations bring with them their own mandates, philosophies, mixes of national backgrounds and expertise, and other factors that can reconfigure the political landscape around the investigation. Between the halls of international institutions, the offices of various nongovernmental organizations, the homes of mourners, the grave, and the morgue, a dialogue takes shape.

In the face of all these particulars, it is tempting to doubt the usefulness of talking about "international forensic investigation" in any general sense. Every new forensic investigation is so complex, so forcefully shaped by the political and cultural context in which it is carried out, that perhaps the only stories we can tell are stories of individual countries and their exhumations. This has been the approach of cultural anthropologists, and some archaeologists, who have written about the forensic investigation of human rights violations. These studies of particular exhumations or identification projects, in keeping with their discipline's prevailing ethic of "observation and documentation" while disavowing any global or transhistorical generalization, have eloquently described the complex role that history, cultures, technologies, and discourses (local and international) play in specific forensic investigations. In the process, they offer a needed correction to the tendency among some humanitarians to portray crucial concepts, such as "the needs of families of the missing," as simple and static, as if families were not divided among themselves and also part of larger, sometimes conflicting, interest groups.

But important continuities do exist across different contexts and forensic projects—among them the norms and codes that forensic teams bring with them to the regions they visit. Anthropologists have tended to spend less time observing how forensic teams, like the local communities around mass graves, are embedded in histories of their own. The experiences forensic experts had in the former Yugoslavia affected how they evaluated the prospects for mass grave investigations in Iraq, as well as individual and organizational decisions about whether to participate. On a more personal level, a forensic anthropologist such as Clea Koff may "read" her experiences in Bosnia or Kosovo with reference to what she witnessed in Rwanda, comparing the methods of violence and types of suffering, the different needs of mourners, and the adequacy of the international response. In other words, half of the ingredients in the complex relationship between forensic teams and the communities they visit—the ones that exist not in "local culture" but in an evolving international culture of forensic work—are largely left out of the context-by-context approach arrived at through anthropological fieldwork. While every international tribunal, association of families of the missing, and transitional government inhabits a different place and time, there are important and by no means accidental similarities between them.

The concept of forensic "stakeholders" helps to narrow, constructively, the field of analysis; however, it is also far from perfect. The term's greatest flaw is that, in a setting shot through with violence, grief, and longing, it seems detached and even businesslike. It may, for that reason, seem biased toward the government offices and chambers where the officials of transitional governments and international tribunals make strategic calculations, and against the types of emotional, and sometimes religious, claims that families of the missing and other mourners tend to make. Far from minimizing or ignoring claims based on grief, care, or ideals of justice, I aim to show how those concerns are woven into even the most technical and legalistic elements of forensic practice.

Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia: Tribunals as Stakeholders

Forensic teams investigating human rights violations have done a tremendous amount to help hold perpetrators accountable for the violence they have committed, challenge the official denial and self-granted amnesties of the powerful in courts, and thus reaffirm the return to the rule of law. They have done so in a long list of different settings, including national courts in Argentina, Peru, and Ethiopia, as well as international tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone. The International Criminal Court at The Hague also has a division focusing on the collection of forensic evidence.

However, criminal justice is only part of the larger project of transitioning away from authoritarian rule and often raises at least as many difficult questions as it resolves. Ruti Teitel writes:

The debate over transitional criminal justice is marked by profound dilemmas: Whether to punish or to amnesty? Whether punishment is a backward-looking exercise in retribution or an expression of the renewal of the rule of law? To what extent is responsibility for repression appropriate to the individual, as opposed to the collective, the regime, and even the entire society?

Since the post–World War II Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials, international war crimes tribunals have, as Teitel argues, changed the definition of justice in a globalizing world, narrowing the privileges associated with state sovereignty and giving victims a much larger stage on which to tell their stories and stake their claims. These tribunals have also, however, frustrated the expectations that many victims and human rights advocates have had for them. They have been expensive, slow, and have often only focused on a handful of "big fish" in a sea full of rights violators and people bearing different degrees of responsibility. In this sea swim presidents and militia commanders, neighbors who turned on the people they once called friends, those who turned a blind eye to the violence, who moved into apartments emptied by the displaced, and perhaps—thinking historically—the empires and other foreign powers that often helped lay the groundwork for instability, as well as promoting racial logic and the bureaucratic techniques of control that can lay be mobilized for genocide.

Since Nuremberg, too, the accusation of "victor's justice" has plagued international trials. In the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, among other more recent conflicts, outside observers as well as defendants have cast doubt over proceedings in which only one side in a violent conflict is under investigation. As Derek Congram points out, even the temporal dimensions used to define the period of "conflict" allow for some crimes and forms of responsibility to be investigated, while others are not. Furthermore, though activists and officials have often proclaimed that international tribunals would serve as a deterrent to future war criminals, no hard evidence yet exists to support that claim. Perhaps most importantly, while victims and mourners often care deeply about seeing perpetrators put on trial, in many cases they regard other forms of redress—such as finding out the truth about human rights violations, receiving the remains of dead loved ones, and gaining access to economic assistance—as much more urgent. International efforts to try war criminals are often driven by elites both in-country and abroad, and are not necessarily focused on the needs of the victimized communities.

Most forensic experts have been trained in disciplines that emphasize scientific rigor and cold, hard facts. They have often worked in domestic crime labs, on behalf of the court system in their home countries. These experts may naturally see their work in terms of its legal outcomes, and sometimes, using the precedent of domestic police forensic work, they make it sound as if contributing evidence to the prosecution of human rights violators was the original or "core" priority in international forensic investigation.

The reality, however, is significantly more complex. Clyde Snow and the young students who formed the first forensic team dedicated to human rights work, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, saw the justifications for their work going far beyond the quite limited trials that were possible in post-junta Argentina, before the infamous "Full Stop" and "Due Obedience" laws called a premature halt, at least for a time, to human rights prosecutions. The Argentine team faced an extremely complex landscape of stakeholders, with an influential group of activists opposing exhumations of the desaparecidos. Nevertheless, despite the various constraints on their work, the team sought to serve the families of the missing by identifying bodies for them to bury—if they would accept them—and conducting their exhumations with both care and scientific rigor. The young anthropologists in the group often found themselves digging up victims who were their own age and from similar social backgrounds: in some sense, as they exhumed the graves of the desaparecidos they were also composing a tragic history of their own generation. For all of these reasons and more, the Argentine and other Latin American forensic teams are generally credited with developing a uniquely holistic and family-centric set of priorities for forensic investigation. If one accepts the mid-1980s birth of the Argentine team as the true beginning of a coherent field of forensic science in the service of human rights, then a holistic, victim-centric, and even politically invested model of scientific activism is the field's origin; it was a decade later when these same Latin American anthropologists and their international colleagues discovered how different things could be when the large machinery of an international tribunal was directing their investigative priorities.


Excerpted from Digging for the Disappeared by Adam Rosenblatt. Copyright © 2015 Adam Rosenblatt. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Foreword xi

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction: Born at the Graves: A Human Rights Movement Takes Shape 1

Part 1 The Politics of Mass Graves

1 The Stakeholders in International Forensic Investigations 41

2 The Politics of Grief 83

Part 2 The Philosophy of Mass Graves

3 Forensics of the Sacred 125

4 Dead to Rights 153

5 Caring for the Dead 167

Appendix 199

Notes 203

Works Cited 245

Index 267

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