Lessons Learned from the AFAD Forensic Conference for Human Rights and Justice
By Michele Park Sonen, NKHR program officer, Campaign Team
As a member of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), NKHR was invited to participate in a conference examining the role of forensic science in the search for victims of disappearance and bringing the perpetrators to justice. The conference, entitled the Forensic Conference for Human Rights and Justice, took place in Manila on July 22 and July 23, 2014. Among the speakers were forensic scientists and experts from Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The participants included human rights activists from across Asia, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Jammu and Kasmir (India), Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, and the Philippines.
The presentations centered around the conference objective of bringing experts together to provide updates on country-specific activities, challenges faced, and recommendations on how to improve the utility of forensic science in the search for justice with respect to enforced disappearances. One of the first presenters, a forensic scientist formerly with the University of the Philippines, Richard Jonathan Taduran, spoke generally about the field of forensic science, and about the challenges he experiences in the Philippines. One challenge, which was also raised by other experts, stemmed from the lack of available academic research on Asian populations. He explained that an important role of forensic investigators is to identify remains discovered in unmarked graves. After carefully examining the remains, forensic investigators rely on data compiled in academic research to predict the victim’s identity. For instance, bone development can help determine the age of the victim. But in the absence of data from the target population—the bone development patterns of Filipino men, for example—predications are likely to be inaccurate. For NKHR, Mr. Taduran’s comments raised the concern that in the event remains are found in North Korea, a similar lack of research distinguishing between the anatomy of individuals in North and South Korea could impede efforts to accurately identify victims.
A presentation on DNA investigations by Dr. Maria Corazon A. de Ungria also proved particularly interesting and relevant. In her presentation Dr. Ungria dispelled common misconceptions about the role of DNA in the identification of victims of enforced disappearance. Although DNA can be a powerful tool, she discussed two of its serious limitations. First, DNA acquired from remains cannot alone identify a victim; it must be matched to a sample DNA, either from the possible victim or a family member. If there is no sample DNA from the disappeared person or a close family member, DNA analysis would be unhelpful. Dr. Ungria thus recommended that close family members of disappeared individuals ask a DNA laboratory such as hers to hold a sample of their DNA. The second limitation identified by Dr. Ungria was cost—because DNA analysis is a very costly procedure, it is often out of reach for families that lack the support and financial resources of their governments.
The conference concluded in a workshop where all participants discussed their own challenges and recommendations. NKHR learned from those who have already undergone significant forensic work in searching for victims of disappearance that government support, sufficient resources, and well-trained investigators are critical to ensuring successful forensic investigations. NKHR will keep these lessons in mind as we continue helping the families of the disappeared and work toward future unification of Korea.
Program Officer Michele Park Sonen participating in a workshop about forensic investigation in cases of enforced disappearance.