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Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 17:23 GMT

World: Europe

The forensics of investigating war crimes

Ethnic Albanians cry for their dead relatives

Professor Peter Vanezis, Head of Forensic Medicine & Science, Glasgow University, writes for BBC News Online

The investigation of war crimes and associated human rights abuses by forensic scientists requires a multidisciplinary team with appropriate expertise.

Glasgow University's Professor Peter Vanezis describes the forensic process
The team must be able to act independently and with authority and have the respect of all interested parties.

There have been many investigations carried out since World War II, but most recently in countries such as Bosnia, Croatia and Rwanda, all three under the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal.

Many other investigations of extrajudicial killings by governmental and non-governmental groups have also been investigated, principally in countries such as Chile, Argentina and El Salvador, to name but three.

The purpose of such an investigation would be to address the following issues:

  • To determine the circumstances, in other words the setting and manner, in which death occurred as well as the actual cause of death

  • To identify the deceased persons

'Legitimate' acts of war

The first issue focuses on what type of injuries were found and whether they were caused by "legitimate" acts of war by combatants, or whether unarmed individuals were killed in cold blood.

The distribution and type of injuries will assist in this determination. For example, if people were lined up and shot one may well find evidence of injuries at two or three levels if there are waves of discharge.

The character of the wounds may assist to tell one if the wounds were near range or from a distance.

One or two bullet wounds to the back of the head would indicate an execution.

It will also be necessary to carry out a thorough investigation of the death scene, looking for clues such as spent cartridge cases or patterns of blood spattering.

Questions need to be addressed - including whether or not where bodies are found is close to where they were killed, or whether they were transported from another place.

Clearly the death of people in civilian clothing or of women and children will allow conclusions to be drawn.

Identification of the deceased is essential, as this will assist in confirming for example, eyewitness accounts of sightings of particular groups of people or individuals being injured or "taken away".

Who's who

With regard to the make up of the forensic team, this will to some extent depend on the circumstances and condition of the bodies.

Where dealing with recently deceased persons, which have not been buried in a grave, then the following services are required:

  • Forensic pathologist - to carry out the autopsy, give a cause of death and assist with reconstruction of events and identity. It is also incumbent on the pathologist to be aware of the possibility of a "cover-up" with injuries being modified or tampered with to hide the truth.
  • Forensic dentist - to examine the teeth of the deceased and compare with dental records to try and identify the individuals.
  • Forensic anthropologist - to assist in identification of the victims and, where burial is involved, to recover remains.
  • Radiologist or radiographer - to interpret x-ray findings; helpful for firearm deaths and for fractures as well as a help in identification.
  • Mortuary technicians - to assist the pathologists in the autopsy.
  • Scene of crime officers - to investigate the scene and to assist in the collection of samples.
  • DNA specialists - to receive samples and try and identify deceased. There must be provision for taking samples from relatives.

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