Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 17:23 GMT
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.
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:
'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".
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: