A woman holds up a photograph of her missing adult son.
Beirut. The ICRC and Lebanese authorities organise a commemorative event attended by families of the missing person. A woman holds the photo of her missing loved one. (Photographer Hussein Baydoun, Copyright ICRC)

What is Humanitarian Forensic Action?

Humanitarian forensic action is the application of forensic science to humanitarian action. During conflict, disasters, other situations of violence, and consequences of migration there are victims of violence including deceased or missing individuals. A priority of forensic science in the humanitarian space is the dignified management of the deceased and the resolution of missing cases. The identification of individuals in a priority as families have a right to know the whereabouts and fate of their relatives and the deceased have a right to the restoration of their identity after death.

A family is being shown the remains of their relative by forensic anthropologists Sao Paolo, Vila Mariana, forensic anthropological and archeological center of the federal university. Relatives of missing persons talk with scientific committee members from the Perus working group (Photographer Marizilda Cruppe, Copyright ICRC).

Since the 1980’s, the scientific process of forensic exhumation and identification has been introduced in wide-scale investigations. For example, the Argentine team of forensic anthropology (EAAF, Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense) is one of the precursors in this field, and is today operational world-wide. Following the investigations after the conflict of the Balkans, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was created (1996). Formed in the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) focused on the collection of evidence for war crime trials. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is another example of forensic application in relation to this topic, and they have a similar focus on the documentation and collection of evidence for judicial prosecution in the hope of accountability for human rights violations.

A woman shows a photograph of her loved one who is missing Kiev. The ICRC opens a photography exhibition entitled “Uncertainty” on families of missing persons. A relative of a missing person is giving an interview. (Photographer Oleg Gerasymenko, Copyright ICRC).

Regarding the deceased, humanitarian priorities should not be seen independently from the judicial aspects of international humanitarian, human rights, or criminal laws. The investigation in mass fatalities, whether they aim at the prosecution of perpetrators, the identification of the victims, or both, depends on the collection of the same type of information (e.g. excavation data, biological profile, pathology and trauma analyses, etc.). The International Criminal Court (ICC) is using forensic experts for field investigation as part of their Court proceedings. These experts may provide expert evidence or instruction to the court for trials of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The angle of approach (judicial versus humanitarian) will depend on the mandate of the organization, and influences which disciplines and specialties of forensic sciences will be used in such operations.

Since 2003, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) have been actively working with local authorities and forensic practitioners to develop standardized procedures and protocols, and to improve communication and cooperation strategies, for dealing with all aspects of forensic humanitarian needs.

A relative of one of the missing from the conflict 1992 conflict in Abkhazia Tbilisi, Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau. 17 sets of human remains of persons unaccounted for in relation to the 1992-1993 armed conflict in Abkhazia are handed over to their families. Official ceremony at the Brotherhood Cemetery. (Photographer Aleksander Imedashvili, Copyright ICRC)

The neutrality, independence and impartiality of the ICRC assist its work in forensic humanitarian action which is grounded in international humanitarian law (IHL) and guided by humanitarian principals. Since its creation in 1863, the ICRC has an obligation under IHL to promote the protection of the deceased as a victim category. Now active in more than 80 countries with a multidisciplinary team (anthropologists, archaeologists, pathologists, odontologists, geneticists, etc.), the Forensic unit of the ICRC (formally created in 2004) accompanies governments, experts, associations and other actors involved in the management of the dead to ensure an optimized search and identification process. The main priorities are to adapt the practices to the different cultures and religions and support the medico-legal systems efficiently to have a sustainable impact.

Personal effects associated with a body, which may aid in identification Near Darwin, Argentine military cemetery. During the examination of the bodies, the forensic experts search for any individualizing personal belonging that could help identify the mortal remains (Photographer Didier Revol, Copyright ICRC).

Family member of one of the 17 identified individuals bending over the coffin in grief Tbilisi. 17 sets of human remains of persons unaccounted for in relation to the 1992-1993 armed conflict in Abkhazia are handed over to their families. Official ceremony at the Brotherhood Cemetery. (Photographer Aleksander Imedashvili, Copyright ICRC).

For further information on Humanitarian Forensic Action in post-conflict regions please look at and download for free Forensic Science and Humanitarian Action published by the ICRC.

Also download the following free manual for the Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders published by the ICRC.

See also the open access journal Human Remains and Violence.

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Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University