Identifying Afghanistan’s war dead

Gillian Fowler, left, at the conferenceA forensic anthropologist has contributed to a special report which outlines steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

Gillian Fowler, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln (UK), has been involved with the Afghan Forensic Science Organisation (AFSO) from its inception in 2010.

Set up as part of Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) project Securing Afghanistan’s Past, Gillian was asked to provide training in human osteology (the study of bones).

Gillian had previously spent six years working for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. While there she was involved in the exhumation of graves containing the innocent victims of the uprising against the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

She said: “The aims of the PHR/Afghan project were human identification and determining what is needed to build forensic capacity in order to investigate the atrocities that have taken place throughout the various conflicts.”

The report was presented during a conference Truth Seeking and the Role of Forensic Science held in Kabul, Afghanistan this April 2013.

Its overall objective is to provide Afghanistan’s government institutions, civil society organisations and the international donor community with critical information about the scientific and technical capabilities the country needs in order to document past abuses and undertake human identifications.

Since 2009, PHR has helped Afghans develop the local capacity to document and secure mass graves, while preventing the destruction of evidence; introduced forensic concepts of this work to government and civil society; and reported on steps needed to begin developing scientific and technical capabilities to identify the missing.

Stefan Schmitt directs PHR’s International Forensic Program and was the report’s lead author, previously working with Gillian in Guatemala.

He said: “Since 1978, Afghans have continuously lived through protracted cycles of violence that included massive human rights violations and war crimes with virtual impunity for many of the perpetrators. Healing such deep wounds is a complex and lengthy process.  What is needed from both the government of Afghanistan and the international community is a serious commitment to a vision for a better future — and that includes addressing the wrongs of the past.”

Key recommendations from the report, which can be read in full at include:

•     The Afghan government must draft, enact, and implement legislation addressing the rights of the missing and disappeared, as well as their families, while criminalising enforced disappearances. Such legislation must include an acknowledgement that families have a right to know the truth about the fate of their missing relatives.
•     The Afghan government has yet to establish the scope or acknowledge the reality of the missing persons issue in the country in any meaningful way. The publication of the highly anticipated Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) Conflict Mapping Report would be a critical first step towards achieving this. This report yet has to be published. The AIHRC should convene a working group to define a comprehensive strategy for release of the Conflict Mapping Report, identifying key conditions that must be met to ensure its release.
•     The Afghan government needs to enforce existing legislation for the protection of mass grave sites, which must be preserved as crime scenes and protected from destruction until all relevant forensic evidence can be collected.
•     Afghan scientists and scholars have been isolated from modern education and the academic world throughout Afghanistan’s decades of conflict. International donors and the government of Afghanistan need to identify and prioritize funding for the increased and sustained development of Afghanistan’s higher education system, particularly for those who must play a role in its forensic future, such as judges, prosecutors, attorneys, scientists and medical professionals.

Story credits:

Marie Daniels - PR OfficerMarie Daniels – PR Officer
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