Since the late 1980s, forensic science has played an increasingly important role in how societies and states address human rights violations. From the pioneering work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense), established to investigate the cases of disappeared people under the military government in power from 1976 to 1983, to the efforts to identify the missing from the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in countries such as Chile, Peru, Guatemala, Cyprus, and Iraq, forensic science has become a means of intervening into post-conflict societies. Its expertise is now routinely sought to help compile medico-legal facts, evidence for use in judicial proceedings, as well as to recover and identify the remains of persons missing as a result of armed conflict and, in many cases, state-sponsored violence.
Recovering and identifying missing persons, however, is more than scientific intervention. It is a profoundly social process, often driven by those most intimately connected to the violence and its victims–that is, the families of the missing themselves. Exhuming bodies and returning them to grieving families and communities are also inherently political acts. Drawing on a range of both practical and theoretical expertise, this panel examines the work of forensic science in post-conflict societies, focusing on examples in Latin America and the former Yugoslavia, as well as a new initiative within the American Academy of Forensic Science.
Body as Witness: Forensic Science and Human Rights was held at George Washington University on 6 May 2015 and included panellists Luis Fondebrider, Adam Rosenblatt, Doug Ubelaker and Sarah Wagner.