Fri, Nov 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Using DNA to return identity to genocide victims and bring peace to their families

Thousands of people are missing around the world due to genocide and natural or man-made disasters, but DNA advances are making it possible to identify bodies from mass graves — and provide evidence that can be used to hold warlords to account

By Christian Jennings  /  The Guardian

The decomposition of human bodies is slowed by a lack of oxidization, and the clay in the grave has effectively sealed the bodies from the outside air. The process of saponification, whereby after death the body’s tissue turns to a soap-like substance called adipocere, also called grave-wax, has been slowed. Muscular and organ tissue still clings to the skeletons.

Once exhumed, the bodies are taken to a nearby makeshift mortuary, to begin the road through ICMP’s DNA laboratory system. Hopefully, for the living relatives of the Tomasica dead, who have waited 20 agonizing years to find them, this will see the remains identified and returned to their families for proper burial.

The legal, forensic and human rights apparatus that makes this possible — the pathologists, mortuaries, autopsies, associations of living family members, DNA labs, data-matching software, court orders — is a vast operational monolith whose running the ICMP has perfected in Bosnia since the war. Wherever it goes, it must operate within the framework of any given country’s laws.

“Science cannot exist in a vacuum,” an ICMP director says. “It has to coincide with a rule-of-law approach.”

In The Hague, Dutch Foreign Mnister Frans Timmermans called for the ICMP to be given legal status under international law to enable it to operate worldwide — a motion supported by the UK, whose successive governments have been among the 22 worldwide that have funded the organization over the past 17 years.

Regardless of whether the victims in question are from Kosovo or Iraq or Libya — or, as at Tomasica, from Bosnia — the identification of missing people is desperately important for human rights, reconciliation and justice. It establishes accurate numbers of casualties, and they prove what happened. On history’s card table, they lay down a scientifically precise ace of spades. They put in place an absolutist cornerstone of the process of rule-of-law, as establishing numbers of missing persons is also vital for any war crimes trials.

It helps with natural disasters and terrorist incidents too — ICMP staff are currently in Nairobi, assisting with the aftermath of the Westgate shopping mall attack. Last summer, when a train caught fire off Lac-Megantic in Canada, killing 50 people, the heavily burned remains of some of the victims arrived in the Sarajevo DNA laboratory.

ICMP’s work is also, with the consent of relatives of the victims, used as evidence in war crimes trials, such as those of senior Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Mladic, being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, also based in The Hague. This provision of evidence can thus contribute to a newly emerging form of “atrocity accountability.” It issues a warning to warlords the world over that their crimes can, one day, come back to haunt them in international courts.

However, first the remains of missing persons have to be identified. Since the 1970s, thousands of people have gone missing from conflicts in countries including Chile, El Salvador and Iraq, as well as the Balkans. Before the ICMP started using DNA testing in 2000, human remains were mostly identified through artefacts found with them: dentures, blood-stained clothing, documents and fingerprints — the stark, mundane memorabilia of violent human demise. The problem was that this method was unreliable.

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