Forensic genetics and the search for the truth

The UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) in Nepal recently welcomed as “a vital step forward” the exhumation of the reported burial site of five students, the alleged victims of enforced disappearance during the internal conflict.

The Human Rights Council moves to raise awareness globally of forensic genetics © UN Photo/Martine PerretThe exhumation team, led by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and consisting of national and international forensic experts and the Nepal Police found the remains of four people and continues to search for the remains of a fifth. OHCHR Nepal supported the exhumation with observation, and other logistical assistance.

Describing it as, “a key case of a human rights violation related to the conflict”, the Acting Head of OHCHR, Nepal, Jyoti Sanghera said, “By acting upon the request of families of the disappeared, the NHRC has respected the victims’ right to truth and strengthened their hope for realizing their right to justice.”

The disappearance of the five students is one of thousands globally where families and friends spend entire life-times searching for the truth and evidence which could offer some opportunity for justice and reparation, both central elements in transitional justice and accountability processes.

Critical to establishing the truth in situations of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law is the use of forensic genetics.

The Human Rights Council has recognized the importance of forensic genetics and the role it can play in identifying victims of human rights violations, and has commissioned a report to identify future trends in the field. The Council also asked that consideration be given in the report to the development of an agreed manual for the application of forensic genetics and, where appropriate, the voluntary creation and operation of genetic banks with appropriate safeguards.

Tabled at the September meeting of the Council, the report underscores the “crucial role” of forensic genetics in identifying people who are missing or have disappeared.  The past two decades have shown the clear limits of trying to identify remains of victims using only background, medical and dental ante-mortem records, the report says.

There are several essential prerequisites identified in the report that must be met to guarantee the credibility of forensic work in cases of gross violations of human rights.

The support of the communities and families concerned is essential for the success of the projects, the report says. Appropriate ways of involving those people and groups must be found from the start. Protocols for exhumation of bodies and remains must also be established, according to the report, along with procedures for handing over the remains to families which respect cultural and religious practices.
The report stresses that the international community must assist in bridging the technological gap that exists in many countries where the use of forensic science is still not standard practice.  Upgrading equipment and providing training, the report says is crucial to improving the results and credibility of such investigations. 

The creation of databanks of relatives of missing people makes it possible for large-scale identification, it says. But the establishment of such databanks, the report cautions, must be governed by provisions which are very explicit about their goals, restrictions on the use of the data, consent, confidentiality, and the procedures to be used. For example, it says the commercial use of the genetic information should never be permitted.

The report concludes that the development of UN guidelines would help raise awareness amongst governments that forensic genetics can assist with compliance with human rights obligations.  Forensic genetics, according to the report, must be based on objective scientific methods and could also emphasize best practices in laboratory accreditation, formal quality assurance mechanisms, training and certification of analysts.

The report notes that any guidelines must, to the maximum extent possible, ensure informed consent in the collection, use and storage of human genetic data.

The Council has now decided to pursue further the question of a manual to guide governments in the use of forensic genetics for the identification of victims of international humanitarian and human rights law and has requested a second report to be considered at the end of 2011.

5 November, 2010 is the 30th Anniversary of the establishment of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the first special procedure or group of experts established by the United Nations with a universal mandate.

Originally conceived because of the thousands of people who disappeared in Argentina and Chile in the 1970’s, the Working Group has, over the past three decades, dealt with more than 50,000 cases of the disappeared from all regions of the world.

29 October 2010