Clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and managing the dead are holistic and complex processes that comprise both technical and non-technical aspects, and involve structural and operational prerequisites. In the case of missing persons, the search and identification processes adhere to important principles and standards, many of which are taken from the forensic sciences (e.g. medicine, pathology, anthropology, archaeology, fingerprint analysis, dentistry, genetics), and call on experts from other related disciplines (e.g. researchers, investigators, crime-scene experts). Forensic sciences also come into play in safeguarding the dignity of the dead, ensuring proper and professional management of remains, so that identification processes are credible and reliable, which is an important aspect for families.
The application of these principles and standards and use of this expertise in preventing and addressing the tragedy of missing persons, whether they are dead or alive; in managing the dead; and in providing objective answers to families is part of what is known as humanitarian forensic action. It entails a range of activities aimed at supporting victims of conflict, catastrophes or migration directly, or at providing technical advice and assistance to the medico-legal system, local forensic services and first responders to strengthen their capacities to respond to humanitarian needs in a neutral, impartial and independent manner, free of charge, and in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Such activities may include: measures to identify human remains; issuing of death certificates; ensuring that forensic specialists, whenever possible, carry out the procedures to exhume, examine and identify human remains; ensuring adequate training to all persons collecting information on the dead and handling human remains; establishing of protocols for forensic work and appropriate means of associating the communities and the families in the forensic processes; establishing procedures for handing over the human remains to the families.

Our focus is to resolve the matter of the missing and bring dignity to the dead. We work to implement systems that accommodate the information being collected amongst all the other chaos that is going on. Those bodies are individuals. They have a right to their dignity, they have a right to their identity, and they have a right to be reconnected with their families"

“She is buried, she is at peace.” | ICRC

Stephen Fonseca, ICRC Regional Forensic Manager, Africa.

Forensics and Families

Families are instrumental to the forensic work of searching for and identifying missing persons, because of the information they provide about their missing loved one and the circumstances of their disappearance. To gather this information, trust must be built with the families and maintained throughout the search process. Likewise, forensic experts and other authorities involved should make sure that the information on actions and findings provided to families is exhaustive and in a format that can be delivered to the families. Families need to be provided with explanations about the identification process, what to expect, why it can take a long time, why is complex, etc. This delivery must take place in a professional, clear and easy-to-understand manner. This requires a skilled and empathic approach to communication with families, to ensure they trust the result of the investigation, whatever that might be.

Social, cultural and religious diversity

All cultural systems devote major symbolic and structural efforts to handling the dead. Appropriate ways of burying, mourning, remembering and commemorating the deceased have a deep impact on individuals and their communities. In humanitarian emergencies, social, cultural and religious understandings of death intersect but can also clash with imposed emergency measures and forensic practice. This diversity must be duly considered in the response to circumstances of violence or disaster.

Taking a multidisciplinary approach to humanitarian forensic action to address this challenge allows for the possibility of collaboration with other fields in the social sciences, such as social and cultural anthropology. Recent anthropological studies concerned with the search for, recovery and identification of dead and missing persons en masse show the importance of considering the relation between local ritual practices of bereaved communities, aimed at securing the fate of the soul in its afterlife, and international forensic protocols.

Social scientists, such as socio-cultural anthropologists, can act as mediators between government officials, forensic practitioners and communities in order to facilitate the exchange between developing and implementing emergency measures and international guidelines of forensic practice and local approaches to the management of the dead. They might also aid with the translation of culturally diverse customs and language associated with the recovery, burial and commemoration of the dead and missing in different crisis scenarios.

Humanitarian forensics and the law

When people die during armed conflicts, situations of violence falling below the threshold of armed conflict, disasters, or while migrating, their bodies must be handled respectfully and with dignity; and the remains of unknown individuals must be identified. Failure to do so can increase the number of missing persons, disrespects the deceased person and the rights and needs of their relatives and prolongs their suffering.

In the context of armed conflict, international humanitarian law (IHL) requires that the remains of those who have died be handled with dignity and be properly managed. It also requires that they be searched for, collected, and evacuated, which helps ensure that people do not go missing.

Other branches of international law such as international human rights law and international disaster response law, contain important provisions to ensure that the dead are managed in a proper and dignified manner, and to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons not only in armed conflicts but also in other circumstances such as the disasters and migration.

It is therefore important to ensure that well-functioning medico legal and judicial systems are in place to both prevent, and properly manage missing persons caseloads. All the components that are carried out in a death investigation by judicial and medicolegal authorities aim to professionally manage the deceased’s body, conduct a proper examination to determine identification, cause and manner of death, report findings to the families and the public, and to register deaths with the national vital statistics ministry.

The Grandmothers of Humanitarian Forensics

Families have played a vital role in the development of forensic science, in particular the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, who have effectively pioneered the development of humanitarian forensic action. During the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship, hundreds of children who had been kidnapped along with their parents, and children were also born during the imprisonment of their mothers in secret detention camps, were illegally adopted out into other families. Founded in 1977, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a humanitarian organization dedicated to finding and identifying these children.

In the early 1980s, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo saw the potential value of forensic science to the search for their grandchildren. The Banco Nacional de Datos Geneticos (National Genetic Data Bank) was created in Argentina in 1987 to store blood samples from family members and enable genetic testing and comparison. This scientific procedure, which can determine the filiation of a child in the absence of their parents by analysing genetic material from their grandparents, is known as the ‘grandmother index’.