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Archives Without Borders

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Since the 1980s we have seen the rise of forensic-based human rights organizations working to scientifically document crimes against humanity on an international scale. It is perhaps too early to tell what effect the conjunction of scientific data and eyewitness testimony will have on historical writing. However, discernible changes are already apparent with regard to the archive; forensic science is complicating who has access to and what constitutes archival material.

Kristian Rink, Sounds, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

The mounting discursive currency of forensic science in matters relating to the documentation of human rights abuses is often greeted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation because the positive reputation that often precedes forensic science is proving to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the partnership of forensic scientists with human rights organizations announces a future where material evidence accurately testifies to abuses committed in violation of international law. On the other hand, there is no telling whether forensic science investigations will deliver on their promise to identify missing victims or succeed in bringing criminals to justice. Expectations are high, but, concretely speaking, it is simply too soon to tell whether forensic science will have the effect they hope it will have on the international stage.What is more, the shift from a reliance upon eyewitness testimonies prior to the 1980s to forensic evidence in recent decades signals a movement away from evidence based solely on story-telling, personal interpretation and subjective historical reconstruction to evidence valued for its brute materiality. The systematic application of scientific methods to the documentation of human rights abuses is changing the way we approach, discuss and respond to crimes against humanity even if it remains very much a mere potentiality in terms of fulfilling its mandate. However, if we consider what it is doing, rather than how it compares to its stated goals, we see that non-government organizations and other international human rights organizations that employ forensic scientists are actively producing archives. Forensic science’s recent political turn is raising awareness of new sites and new spaces and they affect the ways in which we conventionally think of inter/national space and/or archival geographies.

Human Rights Investigations and Forensic Science

The application of forensic science to human rights investigations officially began with the Nuremburg trials. However, it was only in the mid-1980s that the practice took hold. In 1984, forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), responded to requests from Argentina to help exhume graves rumored to contain “Desaparecidos”, otherwise known as the forced disappearances ordered by the Condor military regime (1976-1983). Their work in Argentina, which confirmed actions of state terrorism, not only marked the first known collaboration between forensic scientists and an international organization, but also eventually spawned the first international human rights organization based on forensics: the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). Since then, we have witnessed a veritable explosion of similar organizations, most notably NGOs such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), the International Forensic Center of Excellence for the Investigation of Genocide, and Archaeologists for Human Rights (AFHR); other international bodies such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and national bodies such as the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). All have deployed forensic teams around the globe to secure and exhume gravesites. Since the mid-1980s, more than 33 countries have seen forensic investigations within their borders (1). And though each body has its own Mission Statement, the shared hope, writes Robert Kirshner, is four-tiered: that forensic expertise offers solace to families by identifying missing persons; solving historical disputes; convicting malefactors through the recovery of legally admissible evidence; and, eventually, preventing future violations (2).

With the proliferation of forensic-based human rights groups whose primary task is the exhumation of burial sites comes a raised awareness of the value of human remains and material evidence. In a sense, a significant international awareness is growing about the existence of clandestine graves around the world and their potential to document abuses of power. Increasing this awareness are such forensic practitioners such as Dr. Clyde Snow, Dr. Eric Stover, Dr. Clea Koff and Dr. Michael Hirshner, all of whom are personally involved in the movement. They attracted attention to the field with the publication of biographical and autobiographical testimonies as well as manuals intended for popular consumption.

Producing Spaces

Commenting on the rise of secularism in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the modern cemetery, Michel Foucault speculates: “from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language.(3)” The renewed emphasis on the corpse in forensic investigations welcomes an analogy with Foucault’s reflection. The scientifically marked clandestine graves, like the modern cemeteries emerging two centuries ago — beyond the fact that they also reveal a strong cultural and institutional preoccupation with the remains of the dead — are sites that affect the ways in which we imagine space (think, for example, of the distinction between private and public space and the ways in which it permeates cultural and social practices and behaviours). The clandestine graves that have been demarcated and turned over to forensic investigation across the globe are changing our global culture in a similar fashion. As NGOs deploy forensic scientists to grave sites across the globe, and as popular and scientific journals report on their activities, these unmarked graves grow in significance. They become significant because, far from merely tempering the terrifying reality of the decomposing body — in which case the recuperation of bodily remains would be purely therapeutic — these sites shelter forms of documentation that have unprecedented potential to confirm and secure certain historical interpretations of recent and past events. As Clyde Snow writes on the significance of exhuming mass graves in Vukovar, Croatia:

“If justice must fall victim to history, however, forensic anthropologists can at least help make sure that the historical record is correct. Fifty years from now, people in the former Yugoslavia may try to repeat their predecessors’ mistakes, as revisionists assert that ethnic cleansing and mass executions never took place. (…) It is pretty hard, I have found, to argue against a skull with a bullet in it.(4)”

Forensically treated graves, so far as the argument goes, contain hard-to-dispute forms of documentation. Here, Dr. Snow even goes so far as to suggest that forensic science will rid us of the problem of historical revisionism, suggesting that scientifically sound documentation is an antidote to the problem of historical writing.

Producing Archives, Producing Archons

The archive, writes Charles Merewether, “constitutes a repository of ordered documents and records (…) that is the foundation from which history is written.(5)” Though a rudimentary definition, it allows us to note the analogous treatment given to burial sites that are thought to hold historically valuable documentation. Antoinette Burton makes the argument that forensic science has become a site of “sacralization” and renewed “faith in the capacity of science to read certain types of archives (corpses, crime scene, DNA samples).(6)” The body and the grave have become archive. More than remnants in a cemetery, the bodies of the victims of war crimes and other atrocites are a valuable property for human rights organizations to be meticulously collected, recorded and identified. Likewise, if science has an unparallel capacity to read these new archives, it is also because clandestine graves are only constituted as forensic archives when they are marked for forensic investigation. Forensic interpretation decides whether its contents count as valuable evidence for future historical, legal and judicial purposes. The shortage of trained forensic scientists is routinely the object of criticism and exasperation. “Having a policeman excavate a skeleton, I felt, was a bit like having a chimpanzee perform a heart transplant.(7)” The constitution of scientific archives, therefore, also brings with it a corresponding body of archons and institutional surveyors. The management and interpretation of which — though immediately relevant to historical knowledge — is displaced from the historian’s domain and secured to the forensic scientist’s.


There is cause for ambivalence in the face of shifting attitudes and practices in the documentation of human rights. The movement away from testimony towards material evidence and the belief that this self-same movement can remedy the problem of historical knowledge, should be met with caution (8). Yet this much is accomplished: though they are found within and across national boundaries, these subterranean repositories ask us to consider our geographies as archives of recent history. In a sense, the marking of a clandestine grave by forensic-based NGOs brings with it an emergent and changing archival topography that is often incompatible with the national boundaries and official histories that were generally accepted prior to their emergence. Alternatively, we can think of the topographical coordinates of these emergent archives as counter sites. Rather than affirm a given state or political faction’s vision of itself, these sites are fundamentally dystopic, reflecting only the darkest side of state power and, ultimately, of human history.


(1) Steadman, Dawnie Wolfe and William D. Haglund. “The Scope of Anthropological Contributions to Human Rights Investigations.” Journal of Forensic Science 50.1 (2005): 29.
(2) Kirshner, Robert H. “The Application of the Forensic Sciences to Human Rights Investigations.” Medical Law 13 (1994): 451.
(3) Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 25.
(4) Snow, Clyde. “Murder Most Fowl.” The Sciences 35.3 (1993): 17-18.
(5) Merewether, Charles. Ed. The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006: 10.
(5) Burton, Antoinette. Ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham, Duke U.P, 2006: 5.
(6) Cordner, Stephen and Helen McKevie. “Developing Standards in International Forensic Work to Identify Missing Persons.” International Review of the Red Cross 84.848 (2002): 867-884.
(7) See Lawrence Martin’s article “Another Case of Mass Deception?” Globe and Mail Sept. 2 2004.

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