Introduction

Anthropologies of Forensic Expertise in the Aftermath of Mass Violence

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
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Zahira Aragüete-ToribioSenior Research, University of Geneva, Switzerland Zahira.AragueteToribio@unige.ch

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Abstract

In recent (post-)conflict scenarios, the diversity and complexity of mass violence, including acts of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial or summary executions, have transformed how knowledge about such crimes is performed and produced socially. In inquiries into human rights violations, the search for, exhumation and identification of missing bodies often buried in mass graves have led distinct applications of forensic work to emerge. These have some differences from traditional crime scene investigation approaches. Novel interactions between forensic science practitioners and the communities where they operate have given place to unprecedented sociocultural, affective and scientific understandings of evidencing mass crimes. Drawing on different ethnographic experiences of unearthing human remains around the world, this collection considers how, in its judicial but also its extrajudicial application, forensic expertise has been transformed in connection to other epistemologies, collective and individual mourning, kinship, memory and a new politics and ethics of care in distinct state- and civil society-led pursuits to account for the dead and missing.

Dans les scénarios récents de (post-)conflit, la diversité et la complexité de la violence de masse (y compris les actes de disparition forcée et les exécutions extrajudiciaires ou sommaires) ont transformé la manière dont la connaissance de ces crimes est acquise et produite socialement. Dans le cadre des enquêtes sur les violations des droits de l'homme, la recherche, l'exhumation et l'identification des corps disparus, souvent enterrés dans des fosses communes, ont suscité l'émergence d'applications distinctes du travail médico-légal. Celles-ci diffèrent des approches traditionnelles des enquêtes sur les scènes de crime. Les nouvelles interactions entre les praticiens de la médecine légale et les communautés où ils opèrent ont donné lieu à des compréhensions de la mise en évidence des crimes de masse socioculturelles, affectives et scientifiques sans précédent. En s'appuyant sur différentes expériences ethnographiques de mise au jour de restes humains à travers le monde, cette collection examine comment, dans son application judiciaire mais aussi extrajudiciaire, l'expertise médico-légale a été transformée en relation avec d'autres épistémologies, le deuil collectif et individuel, la parenté, la mémoire, ainsi qu'une nouvelle politique et une nouvelle éthique de la prise en charge dans le cadre des efforts distincts menés par l'État et la société civile pour rendre compte des morts et des disparus.

Since the 1980s, the mobilisation of civil society groups against the actions of repressive states has driven the expansion of novel claims for truth, justice and reparation for past mass violence. These demands have often taken place as part of transitional justice agendas set up during, or in the aftermath of, conflict. Within this context, forensic technologies and knowledge have gained an increasing role as means to investigate and clarify often concealed aspects of the most heinous and complex crimes – including crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Over the years, such a scientific enterprise has contributed to the production of evidence about these acts, advancing accountability processes and the trial of those responsible. It has also, however, become a powerful technology of inquiry and identification, aimed at reuniting survivors with the human remains of those who were tortured, murdered and disappeared, and those who went missing in the course of war and other repressive campaigns.

Locating, exhuming and identifying the corpses produced by mass violence have been part of post-conflict state-led efforts to deal with the gravest violations of human rights as well as independent endeavours implemented out of a will to confront situations of ongoing impunity for, and denial of, mass crimes. This situation has afforded new meanings and functions to the deployment of forensic expertise in and out of the courtroom. The rise of this forensic paradigm has triggered the unprecedented mobilisation of scientific teams, capacity and resources at a global level, leading to what some authors have termed a ‘forensic turn’ (Keenan and Weizman 2012; Anstett and Dreyfus 2015; Dziuban 2017). Such international expansion of forensic practice speaks of new configurations in the investigation of unlawful death en masse. It also signals the development of a novel relationship between forensic science and the realms of memory, history, mourning and identity within, but also beyond, the field of transitional justice.

The idea of the ‘forensic turn’ has encompassed, according to Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus (2015), the drive for the universalisation and standardisation of forensic practice in the treatment of mass crimes. Such a move, as others have argued (Rosenblatt 2015), has brought forensic knowledge and expertise in contact with the differing political, cultural and legal realities of the contexts where exhumations unfold, challenging the know-how, epistemology and ethics of forensic practice. Following an increasing body of works in anthropology, which have assessed critically the social experience of recovering human remains in (post-)transitional societies (Kwon 2008; Wagner 2008, 2019; Renshaw 2011; Anstett and Dreyfus 2015; Crossland and Joyce 2015; Ferrándiz and Robben 2015; Robben 2018; Robledo Silvestre 2017; Robledo Silvestre and Hernández Castillo 2019; Rojas-Perez 2017; Olarte-Sierra and Bermúdez 2019; Azevedo 2019; Bennett 2019), this special issue focuses on the particularities that mass crimes inquiries and, concretely, forensic investigations, acquire in different settings. Its contributors examine the epistemic complexity that surrounds the production of knowledge in contexts profoundly influenced by contested political dynamics, diverse historical experiences of extreme violence and socioculturally situated understandings of death and collective and familial bereavement.

The collection, which includes ethnographic articles dealing with contexts as diverse as Colombia, Rwanda, Burundi, the United States and Mexico, goes beyond an analysis of how international principles of forensic action are simply ‘downloaded’ – to borrow Francisco Ferrándiz's (2010) expression – and interpreted in each scenario. Each article rather conceptualises, in its own way, and through an anthropological lens, the manner in which the forensic paradigm emerges locally and whether it is at odds with other practices that may challenge it, exploring the epistemic tensions, digressions and innovations that give shape to such intricate processes of meaning-making about past mass crimes. The special issue takes inspiration from a body of literature that has dealt with the way science takes place in society (Latour and Woolgar 1986; Latour 1987). Drawing from these and other social studies of science and technology, it further interrogates how scientific representations of mass violence and social experiences of it become entangled to make sense of the uncertainty (Jasanoff 2004) caused by state-sponsored and intra-state violence. Moreover, the collection considers how the traits of a global culture of forensic expertise (Knorr Cetina 1999; Carr 2010), which has at times afforded the forensic method a ‘privileged’ or dominant place (Rosenblatt 2015) in the production of meaning at exhumations, are in constant negotiation – and sometimes clash – with other ‘knowledge systems’ (Harding 2011: 10).

From this perspective, all articles demonstrate how, in the contexts analysed, scientific renderings of mass violence cannot be realised or conceived without considering local perceptions and ways of knowing about past repressive events. Providing a ‘situated’ analysis (Robledo Silvestre and Hernández Castillo 2019: 13; drawing on Haraway 1991) of these human rights quests – which recognises the historical and social contexts as well as the limits of forensic practice – the authors explore how diverse understandings of truth, justice and redress influence the way in which human remains are recovered, deaths are mourned and narratives about extreme violence are retold. Just as other works have problematised Western hegemonic forms of knowledge production – and their reproduction – from feminist perspectives (Naples 2003; Espinosa Miñoso et al 2013; Gluck and Patai 2016), critical development studies (Harcourt 2016; Escobar 2020), indigenous epistemologies (Sillitoe 2016; van Meijl 2019; Twance 2019) or a call to decolonise ethnography (Kaur and Klinkert 2021), this special issue seeks to reposition the analysis of human rights investigations of mass crimes and decentralise universalist assumptions about the forensic method. It does so by taking into account the sociocultural dynamics that shape distinct iterations of this practice. In such a way, the articles deal with how family, society and state expectations drive the application – or not – of the forensic method whilst simultaneously considering how traditional understandings of forensic know-how are shaped and challenged by the idiosyncrasies of mass crimes knowledge in each context. Together, contributions offer a kaleidoscopic vision of the experiences of knowing that the search for, exhumation and identification of human remains buried in mass and unmarked graves encompass. In so doing, they address questions that connect science, history, memory and affect in the act of producing knowledge about mass violence.

Accounting for Mass Death

At the heart of these inquiries, the absence of, and the will to find, the bodies of those who suffered extreme forms of violence drive the mobilisation of the living and demand their remembrance (Filippucci et al 2012; Harries 2017; Fontein 2022). In Nostalgia for the Light, the 2010 documentary by Patricio Guzmán, which depicts contemporary experiences of the extraordinary space of the Chilean Atacama Desert, the filmmaker follows, among others, the story of the political prisoners tortured, killed and buried in the land of the desert plateau during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In the film, Guzmán speaks to some of the women who continue to search for the remains of their relatives nearly three decades after the end of the government of the military junta. In one of the scenes, Violeta Berríos, one of those who have relentlessly combed the desert to find the body of their kin, tells the camera with a yearning expression that, as long as she can, she will continue to look for her relative's corpse. At seventy, she explains, she still has serious questions to which she cannot find answers: ‘They say that they took them out [of prison], they put [their bodies] in bags and they threw them into the sea. My doubt is: did they really throw them into the sea? It is a doubt that I cannot answer’.

The words uttered by Violeta Berríos in Guzmán's documentary elucidate the emotive labour (Harries 2017) triggered by the disappearance of a body and the compelling force that ‘wanting to know’ constitutes in the act of searching for, exhuming and recovering the unceremoniously buried corpses of victims of mass or political violence. In this instance, knowing the fate of a missing or forcibly disappeared person becomes a necessary condition for the appropriate burial of a murdered and desecrated body. Anthropologists whose works have focused on understanding death and enforced disappearance in these contexts have argued that these efforts to retrieve the human remains of war and unlawfully killed stem from an individual and social desire to alleviate the brunt of a ‘bad death’ (Robben 2005; Kwon 2008; Ferrándiz 2014; Rojas-Perez 2017; Robledo Silvestre 2017). In his influential work Death and the Right Hand, Robert Hertz suggests that a ‘good death’ is entangled with culture-specific acts of care that aim to secure the smooth transit of the deceased into their afterlife and the bereavement of the living through rites that are at once ‘collective and transformative’ (Simpson 2018: 5). Violent deaths, such as the one endured by Violeta Berríos's kin, however, deprive the dead, their families and communities, as some works have noted, of any ‘remarkable rite of passage’ (Kwon 2017: 2).

Recent literature has further argued that the ‘appearance, disappearance, fragmentation, reconstruction and destruction’ of human remains, or bodies, have a powerful affective quality that moves people into action – through the feelings, emotions or sensations that their absence or presence might cause – transforming the relation between the living and the dead (Krmpotich et al 2010: 372). Putting the body at the centre of their analysis, these works understand the matter of bones as an agent that ‘support[s] or animate[s] processes of mourning and historization, individuation and othering, marginalization and silencing, subversion and reassertion’ (2010: 375). Bodies are thus understood for the way in which their thingness or ‘substantial being . . . engage those they encounter’ (2010: 381), triggering processes of becoming that give place to new individual and social realities. In (post-)mass violence contexts, not all families agree to the search for, exhumation and recovery of the human remains of their kin (see some examples provided by Ferrándiz 2014). For those who embark on such a venture, however, the impulse to know where the body of a family member is located obeys, in most cases, an intimate wish to re-establish an affective bond that has been violently severed. Demands to restore the dead body of a relative have also strived to recognise the dead as social beings (Laqueur 2015) to be acknowledged and brought back to the political community from which they were made to disappear.

When the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo began to mobilise in Argentina, during the 1980s, they did so through a call for ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ against a repressive regime, demanding to know the fate of their kin, detained and disappeared by the military authorities between 1976 and 1983, and to put on trial those responsible for these and other crimes (Guglielmucci 2013). Beyond a personal quest, their demands urged different governments and society at large to reckon with the reality of past atrocities. The mothers’ initial activism, inspired by humanitarian discourses and human rights doctrines, sought to oppose the junta's concealing acts of mass violence with the ‘stubborn’ public exposure of the figure of the detained-disappeared (Guglielmucci 2013: 37). Indeed, echoing the words of Katherine Verdery (1999: 108) in her seminal work The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. Reburial and Postsocialist Change, in ‘reorganizing the relations with the dead’ the mothers sought to rearrange the worlds of meaning of the living. The missing bodies of thousands of detained-disappeared victims became then vehicles through which to ignite the transformation of the country from a repressive military regime to a democratic order.

The end of some of the military dictatorships in Latin America, the collapse of the communist regimes in Europe after 1989, the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars and the end of the apartheid system in South Africa, among others, marked critical moments of political change and social transformation (Teitel 2014). In some of these societies, novel forms of democratic governance and justice emerged, often based on the notions and values of liberalising ideologies. As scholar Ruti Teitel (2014: 103) has observed, these contexts led to a set of political questions that have aimed to assess, not without controversy, what might be the ‘right response to repressive rule’ in order to ensure ‘lasting democracies’. Legal and political paradigms of justice and truth-seeking emerged as means to foster peace and social reconciliation locally and in the international realm. Dealing with and acknowledging past atrocities became central to new models of ‘transitional justice’ (Teitel 2000; Hinton 2010), which aimed to recognise the experience of those affected by mass violence, shed light over gross violations of human rights, put perpetrators on trial, and enable the public remembrance of a poignant legacy. In this context, the normative deployment of investigative devices such as trials, truth commissions, commissions of inquiry or fact-finding missions has attempted to produce evidence of mass crimes – such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and other forms of unlawful death – for retributive purposes as well as to clarify the nature, extent and repercussions of such violent episodes (Hinton 2010; Lawther et al 2017; Adler 2018).

Knowing has thus become an important feature of global, institutionally-led, transitional and criminal justice endeavours – and of their critiques, which have advocated more place-specific approaches to addressing the demands of ‘truth, justice and reparation’ of survivors of mass violence in different contexts (Shaw et al 2010). It has also been an intrinsic part of the citizen-led investigations conducted by civil society and family groups in the face of ongoing impunity for, and denial of, mass crimes in some countries (Ferrándiz 2013, 2014; Aragüete-Toribio 2017; Duterme 2016). Pressing efforts to inquire into crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in democratising societies have triggered collaborative encounters between experts, witnesses, judges, relatives, lawyers and activists (Teitel 2014: 108) in state- and non-state-driven human rights investigations. As part of this venture, testimonies, lived experiences and archival repositories have emerged as important sources of information (Dziuban 2017), especially in relation to the search for, exhumation and identification of human remains located in mass graves. Forensic knowledge and expertise have become potent tools through which to mediate the violent events inscribed on the surface of bones (Ferrándiz and Robben 2015; see also Joyce and Stover 1992; Keenan and Weizman 2012; Filippucci et al 2012), turning dead bodies into significant evidential matter (Schuppli 2020). Beyond this purpose, however, forensic research has also reformulated the relation to the dead body as kin, citizen and political symbol, and exhumation practice has, in turn, also afforded new meanings to the work of the forensic scientist.

The application of the forensic method has been considered, in some contexts of mass atrocity, as an expression of ‘care’ for the dead (Wagner 2008, 2013; Rosenblatt 2015) that contrasts with the brutal treatment that victims received when they were murdered. Indeed, the recovery of human remains has brought scientists in contact with the tragic realities that circumscribe the existence of mass graves and with survivors’ experiences of loss and ongoing grief. The interaction between scientific interpretations and familial and community understandings of the murders has triggered the intimate reimagining of the past in local scenarios, as well as novel perceptions of forensic expertise in an emotionally charged investigative terrain (Koff 2004; Ferrándiz 2006; Wagner 2008; Renshaw 2011; Haimes and Toom 2014; Douglas 2015; Rubin 2014; Aragüete-Toribio 2017). Techno-scientific know-how has also been an important means for the construction of a public memory about past violence on the part of states, which have often led forensic programmes also with the aim of reasserting their sovereignty in unsettled (post-)conflict milieus (Wagner 2008, 2013, this issue; Stepputat 2014; Robben 2014; Jugo and Wastell 2015; Rojas-Perez 2017). In some of these cases, moreover, the relation between state power and forensic knowledge has elicited controversial outcomes, especially when state-driven restitution projects have undermined the ways of knowing and mourning rituals of communities affected by violence (Robledo Silvestre 2019). Since forensic science was first deployed in the service of human rights, these and other considerations have thrown the conceptual, methodological and ethical questions that forensic research faces in these contexts into sharp relief (Crossland and Joyce 2015; Dziuban 2017; Squires et al 2019). Such diversity of issues associated with the production of forensic knowledge about mass crimes has marked the history of the method, its pertinence and constraints in the development of mass grave investigations.

Challenges in the Forensic Investigation of Mass Violence

The history of how forensic know-how became relevant in the unravelling of concealed mass crimes has been well documented in anthropology and other social sciences (Joyce and Stover 1992; Keenan and Weizman 2012; Ferrándiz and Robben 2015; Crossland and Joyce 2015; Anstett and Dreyfus 2015; Dziuban 2017; Dutrénit 2017). Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius Robben (2015) have described how efforts to retrieve the dead bodies of soldiers in the wake of the First and Second World Wars already included the care for human remains in post-conflict restitution plans. In 1985, the international search for one of the most wanted Nazi criminals, the SS officer and physician Joseph Mengele, set the stage for the use of forensic techniques in unprecedented ways. Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover (1992) have documented how the investigation into the human remains thought to belong to Mengele in Brazil brought together international scientists, politicians and the media in a convoluted and lengthy process to identify the body of the criminal. Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman (2012) have further noted that innovative forensic techniques were used in the Mengele investigation, which had a determining impact on the expansion of forensic approaches to mass violence in ensuing conflict and post-conflict settings. As Clyde Snow, one of the scientists working on the analysis of Mengele's remains, cited by the authors, explained, ‘a certain analytical method [was] effectively developed’, which impacted on the ‘procedural standards’ carried out in ‘large-scale investigations of war crimes and crimes against humanity’ from that moment onward (Keenan and Weizman 2012: 55).

The repercussions of this event were soon to be felt when Snow and others who worked in the Mengele case travelled to Argentina to train young scientists on the forensic techniques that were later applied to shed light on the fate of the forcibly disappeared in the country (Joyce and Stover 1992; Keenan and Weizman 2012; Fondebrider 2015; Rosenblatt 2015). The creation of the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense or the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) marked a definitive landmark in the use of forensic science for human rights agendas (Rosenblatt 2015). This moment constituted the birth of what Claire Moon has called a form of ‘forensic humanitarianism’. This is a scientific practice that ‘both services the law and seeks to advance humanitarian objectives’ (Moon 2014: 2), through the search for, exhumation, identification and return of the dead to their families (Rosenblatt 2015; Dziuban 2017). The work of the EAAF soon expanded to other post-conflict zones, such as Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador and Rwanda (Keenan and Weizman 2012; Crossland 2013), and other independent forensic teams quickly appeared in Latin American countries in following decades (Dutrénit 2017). Forensic expertise and corporeal evidence became also relevant to the endeavours of International Criminal Tribunals such as those for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) (Klinkner 2009; Keenan and Weizman 2012: 61; Rosenblatt 2015) and to the work of other courts in domestic transitional justice processes (Olarte-Sierra and Bermúdez 2019, 2021). As Adam Rosenblatt has observed, since the first human rights exhumations of mass graves occurred, forensic investigations ‘have been crafted from a complicated dance between scientific techniques that continue to evolve, a growing international consensus about the moral obligation and legal authority to exhume mass graves after atrocities, and the particular political, legal and logistical challenges’ (2015: 6) presented by each (post-)conflict scenario.

Rosenblatt (2015) has also pointed out that, throughout the years, forensic expertise in the investigation of mass graves has been subject to the distinct priorities and limitations that mark the recovery of bodies in each context. From this perspective, Zuzanna Dziuban has argued that differences in the judicial, historical or humanitarian nature of the inquiry have ‘demand[ed] distinct, and at times, competing modes of truth construction and of collecting, preserving, assessing and presenting evidence’ (2017: 21). This has generated tensions between distinct exhumation goals – for instance, when, in certain cases, judicial authorities have prioritised the legal authentication of human remains over familial and community desires to identify and rebury the dead (see the example of the early exhumations carried out by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, discussed in Wagner 2008; Crossland 2013; Rosenblatt 2015; Dziuban 2017). Other authors working in contexts such as Mexico, Guatemala or Spain (Schwartz-Marin and Cruz-Santiago 2016b; Duterme 2017; Renshaw 2011) have also shown how a lack of economic resources and political commitment to human rights investigations of mass graves on the part of official institutions has put a strain on the way that forensic procedures have been deployed. This, they have demonstrated, has opened the way to creative approaches in the documentation, excavation and analysis of human remains, their identification and reburial, and the protection of the information gathered throughout the inquiry. Such (semi-)independent projects have often involved close collaborations with families and activists, generating in some cases what some have termed forms of ‘forensic civism’ (Schwartz-Marin and Cruz-Santiago 2016a). Likewise, other social anthropologists have observed, in post-violence scenarios such as Cambodia, how bodies can also be at the centre of evidentiary practices that do not necessarily involve the forensic treatment of human remains. In this setting, bodies and body parts have been gathered and displayed without following a scientific method of recovery and identification, with the sole political purpose of showing the extent of the violence exerted by the previous Khmer Rouge regime (Bennett 2019). In all these different cases, the question of why to exhume, as Rosenblatt (2015) has pointed out in his study, conditions the forms in which forensic know-how is operationalised and bodies are cared for, as well as the manner in which past or present systematic acts of murder and disappearance are apprehended.

Through their scientific ‘gaze’ (Renshaw 2011, 2017), training and method, forensic practitioners such as forensic doctors, archaeologists, physical anthropologists, pathologists, odontologists and geneticists, among other professionals involved in the excavation of mass graves, have progressively become deferred ‘witnesses’ (Fassin 2008; Wieviorka 2006; Schuppli 2020) of concealed acts of state terror and other repressive campaigns. Their particular ‘gestures, techniques and turns of demonstration’ (Keenan and Weizman 2012: 67) have developed in order to adapt to the diverse and complex demands of humanitarian and human rights inquiries concerning the dead and missing. Recent studies (Ubelaker et al 2019) have observed how the practice has undergone different formative periods in which professionals have become aware of the need to produce protocols and guidelines. These have dealt not only with issues in the excavation, analysis and identification of human remains, but also with questions of capacity-building, training and interdisciplinary collaboration on the implementation of forensic work in large-scale investigations of mass crimes. The ongoing publication of forensic studies describing highly diverse experiences in contexts of gross human rights violations has revealed how methodologies have evolved over time, becoming more sophisticated, as well as how forensic practitioners have also grown especially attuned to the legal, political and cultural phenomena that impacts their work in such settings (Salado Puerto and Tuller 2017; Cordner and Tidball-Binz 2017). Despite this burgeoning appreciation for the difficulties that forensic science continues to face in contexts of (post-)mass violence, efforts to improve investigative as well as identification processes in connection with human remains and to understand the repercussions of forensic inquiries on the societies affected by mass violence are, according to these and other authors, still needed (see Squires et al 2019).

Contributions to this special issue thus address how the forensic method works in different situations, showing its epistemic idiosyncrasies and limitations, as well as how techno-scientific means and practice have transformed the relationship between past and present, presence and absence, the dead and the living in contexts of (post-)mass violence. Some articles deal with cases in which forensic labour is a trusted and attested source of information-gathering and body-recovery in state-driven investigations into mass death. In these scenarios, ethnographic work highlights the peculiarities of processes in which scientific inquiry serves the creation of official narratives about past disputed events and their collective remembrance – within and outside transitional justice frameworks. Other articles elucidate the frictions that emerge between citizen-led forms of humanitarian forensic action (Schwartz-Marin and Cruz-Santiago 2016b) and medico-legal institutional structures in a context of distrust vis-à-vis the government. In these cases, anthropologists show how alternative modes of knowledge production are conceived in order to locate the dead and missing and the forcibly disappeared, to account for the mass violence they endured and to mourn their loss. Following studies in the anthropology of violence and transitional justice, which have elaborated on the messy politics, social relations and epistemic interplay that constitute so-called ‘truth-seeking’ initiatives (Ross 2003; Wilson 2005, 2011; Shaw et al 2010; Theidon 2012; Viaene 2013; Eltringham 2014; Rojas-Perez 2017), the collection explores how the location, exhumation and identification of human remains is often as complex as the attempts to study and understand the unsettling violence that generated such posthumous forensic and non-forensic inquiries.

Contextualising Forensic Practice and the Search for ‘Truth’

Articles in this collection deal with diverse (post-)conflict contexts, in which state- and civil society-led exhumation campaigns elucidate the social complexities that surround human rights investigations of mass death. All authors recognise the unprecedented advances that forensic science and expertise have brought to the inquiry into mass crimes, their potential to establish the facts about convoluted episodes of extreme violence and their capacity to produce evidence against regimes of impunity for, and denial of, mass crimes. Their contributions, however, focus on the ways in which the production of forensic knowledge is enmeshed in and conditioned by the political worlds that drive its application, the personal expectations of those who search for their missing relatives and the cultural dynamics around mass death shared in different societies affected by extreme violence. Their articles encourage us to think about the limits of evidence production in some contexts, the intricate relation between forensic practice and state power, and the possibility of conducting forensic investigations with greater autonomy, allowing other types of knowledge production to take place and intervene. More generally, their analyses also throw light onto the peculiar experience of interpreting human remains – as entities ‘between vital substance and dead matter’ – showing how their particular ‘felt presence’ can sometimes turn them into malleable signifiers as well as difficult phenomena ‘to resolve into meaning’ (Filippucci et al 2012: 206–207).

In her article for this issue, Maria Fernanda Olarte-Sierra interrogates how forensic investigations conducted in the framework of the 2005 Justice and Peace Law deal with contingency and unexpected findings in relation to the recovery of the bodies of the missing and forcibly disappeared during the Colombian armed conflict. In so doing, Olarte-Sierra explores how the emergence of unforeseen information challenges the standardised logic of coherence assumed by the forensic process. Her article delves into the case of Laidy, a transgender female sex worker killed by members of a paramilitary group, whose dead body was exclusively recorded as that of a man in forensic and state repositories. The author argues that the recognition of the corpse solely in accordance with Laidy's biological male sex marker points to the way in which forensic procedures can sometimes obscure victims’ complex social worlds. Olarte-Sierra elucidates how institutionalised legal and forensic practices can sometimes fail to account for the nuances of a victim's life story, thwarting the ‘enactment of more diverse, populated, multiple worlds that are not content with simplification and singularity’. Her article shows how efforts to produce evidence for mass crimes within the strictures of a criminal investigation can undermine the subjectivity of victims and produce incomplete narratives of violence in ongoing transitional processes.

Producing an official and coherent national narrative of past major conflicts in the US is one of the main driving forces behind the forensic identification of US soldiers missing in action during the Korean War (1950–1953), examined by Sarah Wagner's ethnographic work. Wagner's article engages with a different dimension of post-conflict forensic interventions, which connects to family recovery demands and the reburial of corpses with the aim of reinforcing ‘the community of the nation’ beyond a transitional justice framework. In this context, forensic science and expertise are deployed to foster the humanity of those who died while paying tribute to soldiers as the country's ‘fallen heroes’. Nevertheless, the exhumation and identification of badly preserved and commingled remains, recovered decades ago, have sometimes precluded the use of DNA testing, revealing the limitations of current sophisticated forensic technologies. This has led to the use of traditional and more painstaking technologies of association and identification, which triggered a clash between family, state and military expectations for the timely ‘fullest possible accounting’ of corpses and the complex conditions faced by the scientific method. Indeed, Wagner's article shows that, in the context of a nationalistic state project, the forensic care for the dead can be imbued with potent political emotion as well as how the work of forensic scientists can be invested with great promise by political authorities.

The work presented by Astrid Jamar and Laura Major in this collection also discusses how the recovery of human remains can become a key part of post-conflict state-building programmes. In this example, however, forensic practices and scientific approaches are often deterred or ignored. In their article, Jamar and Mayor show how the handling of corpses resulting from ethnic confrontation in Burundi and Rwanda has been central to the current governmental ‘authoritarian’ politics of truth-seeking in both countries. Unlike the cases in the US or Colombia, in Burundi and Rwanda, forensic know-how and expertise, usually provided by international organisations, remains peripheral to the management of human remains. In Rwanda, forensic expertise has been avoided and exhumations have been rapidly carried out with the aim to exhibit human remains in a network of memorials. In Burundi, even though exhumations have been part of a transitional justice agenda and international forensic expertise has at times been solicited, scientific methods have often been precluded. In both cases, the authors argue, there has been a ‘vernacularisation’ of the search for ‘truth’ and the recovery of human remains, which has instrumentalised human rights discourses and forensic imaginaries in the interest of advancing a circumscribed official history about past mass violence.

As the cases in Burundi and Rwanda show, forensic knowledge and expertise might not always be a preferred or indeed trusted mode of inquiry in conflict and post-conflict settings. This is also the case in contexts where families and civil society groups are sceptical of state institutions. Carolina Robledo Silvestre and Paola Alejandra Ramírez González describe in their article how the search for murdered and disappeared civilians as a result of the War on Drugs in Mexico has generated new epistemic exchanges beyond the realm of the forensic field, in a country where extreme violence is still rampant. In a context where families venture to search for the corpses of their missing relatives practically on their own, the distrust toward state agents, often involved in the violence, and the lack of forensic capacity and will to locate and exhume remains have weakened the legitimacy of state-led forensic practices. Focusing on the work of Las Buscadoras, a group of mothers of the disappeared, Robledo Silvestre and Ramírez González describe how the mobilisation of symbolic, ritualistic and political community actions resist scientific and legal rational acts through the language of emotions. In so doing, they also highlight the importance of conducting collaborative, situated research that actively recognises the role of experience and affect in the production of ‘truth’, as alternative modes of knowledge production about mass crimes. The mistrust of the current status quo has triggered the development of new ways to recover the dead and a new critical attitude toward forensic institutions.

In the afterword to this special issue, as a closing note, Élisabeth Anstett invites us to reflect on the ways in which anthropological work has contributed to the unpacking of silence, impunity and denial in (post-)mass violence contexts. As her words evoke, anthropological works to date have engaged with the study of mass graves for the rich universes of meaning that unfold when these sites, which often lay latent as ‘public secrets’ (Ferrándiz 2006), are located and their contents exhumed. The articles in this issue consider the ways in which people make sense of obscured acts of mass violence, interrogating the scientific and lay paradigms that have emerged in community, national and international attempts to produce knowledge about mass crimes. As forensic knowledge and expertise become mobilised in so-called ‘truth-seeking’ projects, authors problematise the workings of the scientific method, demonstrating the complex ways in which ‘evidence’ and ‘truth’ production take place in diverse socio-political scenarios. Evidencing mass crimes, they suggest, cannot only be understood in connection to the scientific and legal logics that permeate the forensic process. Instead, it needs to be grasped holistically, also in relation to the material, cultural and social experiences that imbue each exhumation process – and which can sometimes escape the rationale of forensic procedures. The location, recovery and identification of human remains in (post-)mass violence contexts have unveiled an extraordinary world of interactions in which objective and subjective visions and personal and collective desires come together in the shaping of distinct facts and imaginaries about mass violence.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the three peer-reviewers for their insightful comments and Dr Aimee Joyce for her annotations on previous drafts. This special issue has been edited as part of the research programme Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice led by Prof. Sévane Garibian at the Law Faculty of the University of Geneva and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF project PP00P1_157406/1): http://right-truth-impunity.ch. It is also part of the research project Beyond Subtierro: From the Forensic Turn to Necropolitics in the Exhumation of Civil War Mass Graves (NECROPOL), led by Prof. Queralt Solé at the History Department of the University of Barcelona and funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (I+D+i PID2019-104418RB-I00).

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Contributor Notes

ZAHIRA ARAGÜETE-TORIBIO is Senior Researcher in the project Right to Truth, Truth(s) through Rights: Mass Crimes Impunity and Transitional Justice led by Prof. Sévane Garibian and funded by the Swiss National Fund (SNSF) at the Law Faculty of the University of Geneva. She holds an MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics and a PhD in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work analyses socio-legal, cultural and scientific renderings of bodies, archives and testimonies in mass crimes investigations after conflict. Her book Producing History in Spanish Civil War Exhumations was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. Email: Zahira.AragueteToribio@unige.ch. ORCID: 0000-0002-8665-8174

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  • Adler, N. 2018. Understanding the age of transitional justice: crimes, courts, commissions, and chronicling. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anstett, É. and J.-M. Dreyfus (eds.) 2015. Human remains and identification: mass violence, genocide, and the ‘forensic turn’. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aragüete-Toribio, Z. 2017. Producing history in Spanish Civil War exhumations. Cham: Springer International.

  • Azevedo, D. de L. 2019. ‘Os mortos não pesam todos o mesmo. Uma reflexão sobre atribuição de identidade política às ossadas da Vala de Perus’, Papeles del CEIC. International Journal on Collective Identity Research 2: 120.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bennett, C. 2019. Human remains from the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia, in Ethical approaches to human remains: a global challenge in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology, K. Squires, D. Errickson and N. Márquez-Grant (eds.), 567582. Cham: Springer International.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carr, E. S. 2010. ‘Enactments of expertise’, Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 1732.

  • Cordner, S. and M. Tidball-Binz 2017. ‘Humanitarian forensic action – its origins and future’, Forensic Science International 279: 6571.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crossland, Z. 2013. ‘Evidential regimes of forensic archaeology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 121137.

  • Crossland, Z. and R. A. Joyce (eds.) 2015. Disturbing bodies: perspectives on forensic anthropology. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Douglas, L. 2015. ‘The arts of recognition’. Anthropology Now 7: 7693.

  • Duterme, C. 2016. ‘Honouring, commemorating, compensating: state and civil society in response to victims of the armed conflict in the Ixil Region (Guatemala)’, Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2: 320.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duterme, C. 2017. ‘Ritualités funéraires autour des morts exhumés: de l'élaboration des pratiques aux enjeux de reconstruction collective et individuelle’. ethnographiques.org 35 (https://www.ethnographiques.org/2017/Duterme) Accessed 30 November 2021.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dutrénit, S. 2017. Perforando la impunidad: historia reciente de los equipos de antropología forense en América Latina. Ciudad de México: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José Luis Mora, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dziuban, Z. (ed.) 2017. Mapping the ‘forensic turn’: engagements with materialities of mass death in Holocaust studies and beyond. Vienna: New Academic Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eltringham, N. 2014. ‘“When we walk out, what was it all about?” Views on new beginnings from within the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’, Development and Change 45: 543564.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Escobar, A. 2020. Pluriversal politics: the real and the possible. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Espinosa Miñoso, Y., D. G. Correal and K. O. Muñoz (eds.) 2013. Tejiendo de otro modo: feminismo, epistemología y apuestas descoloniales en Abya Yala. Popayán: Universidad del Cauca.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fassin, Didier. 2008. ‘The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict’, Cultural Anthropology 23(3): 531558.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferrándiz, F. 2006. ‘The return of Civil War ghosts: the ethnography of exhumations in contemporary Spain’, Anthropology Today 22: 712.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferrándiz, F. 2010. ‘De las fosas comunes a los derechos humanos: el descubrimiento de las desapariciones forzadas en la España contemporánea’, Revista de Antropología Social 19: 161189.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferrándiz, F. 2013. ‘Exhuming the defeated: Civil War mass graves in 21st century Spain’, American Ethnologist 40: 3854.

  • Ferrándiz, F. 2014. El pasado bajo tierra: exhumaciones contemporáneas de la Guerra Civil. Barcelona: Anthropos.

  • Ferrándiz, F. and A. C. G. M. Robben (eds.) 2015. Necropolitics. Mass graves and exhumations in the age of human rights. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Filippucci, P., J. Harries, J. Fontein and C. Krmpotich 2012. Encountering the past: unearthing remnants of humans in archaeology and anthropology, in D. Shankland (ed.), Archaeology and anthropology. Past, present and future, 197217. London: Berg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fondebrider, L. 2015. Forensic anthropology and the investigation of political violence: lessons learned from Latin America and the Balkans, in F. Ferrándiz and A. C. G. M. Robben (eds.), Necropolitics. Mass graves and exhumations in the age of human rights, 3952. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fontein, J. 2022. The politics of the dead in Zimbabwe 2000–2020. Bones rumours and spirits. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

  • Gluck, S. B. and D. Patai 2016. Women's words: the feminist practice of oral history. London: Routledge.

  • Guglielmucci, A. 2013. La consagración de la memoria: una etnografía acerca de la institucionalización del recuerdo sobre los crímenes del terrorismo de Estado en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Antropofagia.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haimes, E. and V. Toom 2014. ‘Hidden in full sight: kinship, science and the law in the aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide’, New Genetics and Society 33: 277294.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.

  • Harcourt, W. (ed.) 2016. The Palgrave handbook of gender and development: critical engagements in feminist theory and practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
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