Justice Talks—In Pursuit of Justice: Forensic Anthropology, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Action

Source: Jaymelee J. Kim, PhD, Wayne State University
Justice Talks

The atrocities of World War II drove the international community to develop human rights law for the pursuit of justice after government-sanctioned mass violence. In the 1980s, forensic anthropologists came to the fore in these endeavors under the trailblazing efforts of Dr. Clyde Snow, who assisted in building the world-renowned Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF), or Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Today, anthropologists work the world over for diverse agencies to gather evidence of human rights or humanitarian law violations, identify human remains, and repatriate the dead. Through examining skeletal remains and artifacts, anthropologists reconstruct the behaviors of perpetrators and victims and work toward identification, but anthropologists also recognize that justice can have many forms and often is a process rather than a singular end goal. As EAAF anthropologist, Mercedes Salado, says in the podcast, The Myth of Closure, "For me, the search never ends with the finding of the body… It's much more complicated than this. So, I don't think there is closure…There is dignity, especially for the living, to be respected enough to fill all the black hole that is the lack of news. We bring relief."

Knowing this, it makes sense that what began in the 1980s has since expanded to include forensic anthropological investigations described by the International Committee of the Red Cross under an interdisciplinary umbrella of "Humanitarian Forensic Action" (HFA). HFA encourages forensic science for justice beyond the medicolegal realm (e.g., disasters, migration, and armed conflict).

The growing application of forensic anthropology alongside myriad interpretations of justice underscores the need to work intimately with surviving communities and to minimize the psychosocial harm that could be inflicted were one to project their own expectations of justice onto another. Interests of law, organizations, science, and survivors do not always align and thus, at their intersection, must be thoughtfully and realistically navigated. These applications of forensic anthropology, be they humanitarian or human rights or something in between, continue to gain momentum. In the United States, we see forensic anthropologists assisting in the pursuit of justice in a community-based investigation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where 36 members of the Black community were killed by mobs of White individuals. Or in the state of Michigan, anthropologists collaborate with law enforcement on large scale exhumation and identification projects to reignite investigations that have long gone cold. Meanwhile anthropologists work with the federal government to identify fallen soldiers or to repatriate remains of Indigenous children who died in Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School. First Nations groups in the United States and Canada have also begun the arduous task of investigating the cemeteries at the former government-funded schools — schools that were part of openly genocidal mandates. At the same time, individuals continue to disappear in the United States-Mexico Borderlands, and anthropologists have come together through universities, medical examiner's offices, and non-profit organizations to bridge the information barrier created by the geopolitical border.

Notions of justice can vary in scope and success, but, to Mercedes' point, perhaps through forensic science we can bring relief.


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