“Reclaiming Stolen Lives: Forensic sciences and human rights investigations conference”
Puncak, Bogor, Indonesia, 7th – 10th June 2010
From June 7th-10th, 2010, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) hosted “Reclaiming Stolen Lives: Forensic Sciences and Human Rights Investigations Conference” in Puncak, Bogor, Indonesia. The conference brought together 35 forensic experts, human rights activists, and representatives of victims’ families associations from seven countries or regions: East Timor, India, Indonesia, Kashmir, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand. Participants were also invited from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but unable to attend due to difficulties in obtaining visas. Further, forensic experts from Latin America, Australia, and Europe attended to deliver lectures and provide input based on their experiences and regional perspectives. In total, 40 participants took part in the four-day conference. The objective of the conference was for an open discussion about the different applications of forensic sciences to the investigation of human rights violations, as well to start a dialogue on mutual collaboration mechanisms for non-governmental human rights organizations and forensic practitioners from the South Asian and South East Asian regions.
The conference began with two days of training seminars on forensic sciences, with presentations by: Luis Fondebrider (EAAF) and Soren Blau (Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine) on forensic anthropology and human identification; Carlos Vullo (EAAF) on forensic genetics; and Hans Petter Hougen (University of Copenhagen, Department of Forensic Medicine) on forensic pathology and documenting torture. These presentations were oriented to both the specialists and non-specialists in the audience, and discussed how NGOs and forensic experts could collaborate in investigations. They also covered the ethical and bioethical considerations in doing forensic work, especially when working with victims of torture, interacting with families of missing individuals, protecting confidentiality of DNA samples, and working with remains. All the presentations were followed by question & answer sessions, and the powerpoint presentations, as well as international protocols mentioned, were given to the participants in digital format.
During the third day, forensic experts and human rights activists presented on their own local contexts. In total, 15 presentations were given (7 from human rights NGOs, including a presentation by AFAD that covered a regional perspective, and 8 by forensic experts). Many of these presentations discussed local challenges faced in investigating human rights violations, and in applying forensic sciences to these investigations. Some common points included:
· Judicial and Legal Systems:
o No country in the region has a civil law or strong legal code to explicitly prevent and criminalize forced disappearances.
o The international treaty against enforced disappearances has not yet been ratified in any of the countries covered by the presentations.
o Lack of acceptance of forensic evidence and expert testimony in courts, with a preference for witness testimonies, especially in some cases in relation to DNA.
o Impunity in human rights cases is still prevalent, aided by the lack of forensic evidence being used in courts.
o No legal resolution for families of disappeared persons, leading to “half widows”, inability by families to administer the inheritance, and children with obstacles to obtaining an education, among other concerns.
o Little political cooperation or support for forensic investigations of human rights cases, or in providing resources for a full forensic investigation.
o Lack of awareness among the public about a person’s rights in regards to enforced disappearances, the possibility of a forensic investigation, or what forensic investigators can do.
o Uneven coordination or communication between stakeholders (human rights NGOs, forensic experts, judicial or police investigators, and families of victims).
o Data about missing persons has been collected, but is spread between various governmental and non-governmental organizations, and further, in some countries, total figures vary because of differing definitions of enforced disappearances, an absence of coordination and due to divisions among members of civil society.
o Sometimes local forensic experts may submit conflicting or misrepresentative reports to court, undermining the contribution of forensic evidence.
· Forensic Capacity:
o Not all forensic experts are willing to or familiar with human rights investigations, due to a variety of reasons like, lower pay, safety or health concerns, or little incentive to work in the public sector.
o Those forensic experts willing to work on human rights cases are already overstretched.
o Lack of coordination regionally among forensic experts willing to work on human rights cases, either to share expertise or resources.
o The local academic or institutional base to train new forensic scientists is absent, only recently started, or not well supported.
o Need better laboratory facilities, or laboratory facilities devoted solely to forensic investigations and not shared with other agencies.
o A lack of government policy about exhumations.
o Cultural and religious differences within countries, including opposition to exhumations by either local population or administration.
o When exhumations do take place, they may not have legal authorization, or families may do the exhumations themselves, without the involvement of forensic experts.
On the last day of the conference, participants held a roundtable discussion to talk about possible joint actions, recommendations, and collaborations that could help address these obstacles and increase capacity for forensic work, as well as increase forensic evidence’s application in judicial investigation. Several general recommendations and conclusions came out of this discussion. These points are drawn primarily from the last day of the conference, but were built out of discussions taking place throughout the week:
- Formation of a regional network of forensic experts willing to work on human rights cases, in order to share experiences, specialties, and case studies, as well as to collectively raise the standard of practice in the region.
- NGOs need to initiate investigations, meaning they must be familiar with the forensic sciences in general and how they are applied in investigations, in order to incorporate local or international forensic experts appropriately. NGOs are also often better situated to manage the political, legal, religious, and cultural contexts around specific investigations.
- NGOs and victims’ families association should be aware of local forensic capacity, and strategic in requesting assistance from international forensic experts.
- Forensic training should be provided specifically for lawyers, judges, and other governmental actors, in order to increase the acceptability of forensic evidence in courts, and thus improve the rule of law.
- The acceptance of forensic evidence in courts may also require a regional lobbying effort, involving NGOs, victims’ families associations, and other stakeholders, not just forensic experts.
- NGOs, working with local forensic experts, can develop plans for collecting ante-mortem information or DNA samples, but also must take into account how this information will be used (and safeguarded) going forward.
- A regular meeting of forensic experts, human rights NGOs, and victims’ families association, either locally or regionally, would increase coordination and communication.
- Legal authorization for exhumations should be sought when possible, but forensic experts, NGOs and victims’ families need to consider carefully what their desires for an exhumation are, whether they want official identifications, are seeking cause of death, or other goals, and what are the limits and possibilities of operating if legal authorization is difficult or not possible.
- Training programs, in forensic practices, psychosocial support, and other topics, need to be tailored to the specific context, and to consider what training format may be most useful moving forward.
Several concrete activities were discussed for the following year, involving collaboration between NGOs and forensic experts. The preliminary discussions for a network of Asian forensic experts willing to work on human rights cases and assist victims’ families associations has since moved forward, and the association is tentatively named the Asian Network of Forensics. The network is still in its early stages, but an organizing committee is being formed to discuss membership and activities, and it appears that AFAD will provide organizational support when possible. The participants hoped such a network would contribute to strengthening the use of forensics in human rights cases in the region.
EAAF already considers the “Reclaiming Stolen Lives: Forensic Sciences and Human Rights Investigations Conference” a very successful first step in raising the level of regional communication and local capacity. EAAF has also planned a series of follow-up activities to reinforce the progress made at the conference. During 2010 and 2011, follow-up forensic assessment visits, by AFAD and EAAF, and forensic training visits, by EAAF and VIFM, will be made to many of the countries participating in this conference, with trips already planned to Nepal and Thailand. At the conference, EAAF was able to discuss with many country delegates the specific needs in their context, in order to anticipate how to tailor trainings or to plan possible collaborative investigations. Further, EAAF has already planned a 2011 follow-up meeting that will involve delegates reviewing the collaborative activities in their countries in the past year, an idea that was widely welcomed by participants, who also discussed possibilities of funding to expand the meeting from a smaller scale follow-up meeting to ideally a more general annual level.