Guide Forensics: Crime, War & Conflict

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  1. Building strategies
  2. The Conversation
  3. Using forensic science to fight back against sexual violence in conflict
  4. The Forensics of War
  5. Forensic Architecture

The Center also provides technical assistance to individuals and organizations devoted to advancing human rights through consultation, educational programs, and original research. Video Forensics in Human Rights Abuse and War Crimes Investigation: Technology, Law, and Ethics The Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University will hold a workshop August , that focuses on the collection, preservation, processing and analysis of large volumes of user-generated video to discover digital evidence of human rights abuse and war crimes.

Building strategies

We will pay particular attention to the increasing use of mobile phones, the Internet, and social media by victims, their advocates, belligerents in conflict, and ordinary citizens to document and disseminate audiovisual records of their experiences and perspectives. Although the workshop will not focus exclusively on a single conflict, the massive amount of audiovisual data from the on-going civil war in Syria will provide the basis for technology demonstrations and conversations about how to collect and store data for future use in justice and accountability activities.

One major purpose of this meeting is to set the stage to harness the tremendous technological and scientific capacity of Carnegie Mellon University consistently ranked as one of the top schools of computer science in the world to advance the state of data sciences for human rights and humanitarian uses. Carnegie Mellon researchers will push the bounds of what is possible with current tools and techniques and devise new methods of data analysis specifically suited to the human rights context.

The Conversation

As such, this is an effort to promote fundamental research in human rights science rather than replicating technology development already being carried out by outstanding organizations like Guardian Project and Witness. The work that emerges from this meeting will aid human rights advocates, lawyers, academic researchers and decision-makers in their efforts to pour through the thousands upon thousands of hours of video now being produced in fragile societies, conflict zones, and situations of human rights abuse.

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What kinds of computational analyses would be most useful for the legal system both prosecution and defense in terms of establishing accountability and achieving justice? What kinds of analyses would be least helpful for the legal system and might potentially cause long-term harm, whether to the judicial process or to society as a whole? Are such massive analyses necessary for tribunals, courts, and truth commissions or will more limited analysis perhaps done by hand just as effective to prove human rights abuse or war crimes?

Ethical Issues Is justice served by these kinds of massive analyses?

Using forensic science to fight back against sexual violence in conflict

What are the potential harms associated such computational analysis? Who should have access to the results of such analyses? Should the identities of people in the videos be protected in any way? Should the information extracted from these videos be combined with data from other sources whether publically available or from government, non-governmental or corporate entities to produce more fine-grained analyses? Yet forensic science has an important role to play in the investigation and prosecution of crimes.

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It can provide physical evidence to help reconstruct events, corroborate witness statements, provide intelligence to investigators and in some cases identify perpetrators. These traces can take various forms: from DNA, to fingerprints, to hairs and fibres, to tool marks and beyond.

The Forensics of War

They can be analysed to link people to an activity or location associated with a crime, and used in court as evidence to support the prosecution or defence. Forensic DNA analysis can be particularly useful in cases of violent and sexual crime, because of the presence of biological material — such as blood, semen and saliva — at some crime scenes. This evidence is particularly valuable in cases where the perpetrator and victim are strangers to one another.

But the perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict are rarely known to their victims, making DNA analysis a potentially powerful form of evidence.

Forensic Architecture

DNA evidence obtained from victims can contribute to investigations and prosecutions in a number of ways. It can identify a perpetrator when suspects are available for comparison, link multiple cases to individual perpetrators, provide valuable intelligence about the prevalence and strategic nature of these crimes and support prosecutions by providing high-quality, physical evidence. In light of these facts, it is unfortunate that DNA evidence is not accessible to investigations and prosecutions of sexual violence in conflict. Lack of access to medical facilities and professionals and inadequate training for police and NGO staff make DNA analysis seem impossible in conflict regions.

In an effort to overcome these barriers, I have assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers with expertise in forensic science, genetics, gender studies, sexual violence legislation, victimology and psychology.

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  5. Our aim is to work with governments, international organisations, NGOs and the International Criminal Courts to design and implement forensic strategies which can contribute to investigations and have a positive impact on prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict zones. For instance, we are currently working with global partners to come up with DNA recovery products, which could be made available to victims who are not able to access traditional medical and forensic examinations.

    This is especially relevant for remote regions, where access to medical facilities and professionals is not possible. We hope this research will provide insight into how to overcome the cultural, legal and technical barriers that exist when trying to implement forensic science in these complex circumstances.

    This article is part of a collaboration with the University of Leicester and the HeforShe campaign for gender equality. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Lisa Smith , University of Leicester.

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