Applications of Forensic Science to Human Rights

Applications of Forensic Science to Human Rights

BY SIFS India | April 05, 2023

Applications of Forensic Science to Human Rights

Conflict, insecurity, weak institutions and limited access to justice continue to pose a serious threat to sustainable development.

In 2019, the United Nations recorded 357 killings and 30 enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in 47 countries.

Mexico is one of the countries with high rate of murders, forced disappearance, clandestine graves, therefore, forensic crisis in the country.

Forensic doctors suffer from burnout due to the excessive workload to issue expert opinions on human identification of clandestine graves. The search for missing persons in Mexico has become more relevant in recent years due to the forensic crisis in the country. 


Demonstration in Mexico City for The Disappearance of The 43 students From Ayotzinapa. (Archivo: CINU/Mexico)

There are several international forensic teams involved in human rights and humanitarian investigations, mostly from non-governmental organizations, which have been leaders and innovators in the application of forensic science to human rights and humanitarian activism around the world.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) serves the role as the "guardian of international humanitarian law" and the main clearinghouse for information on missing persons following armed conflict.

The Red Cross has been involved in investigations of clandestine or mass graves since its role as an observer of World War II exhumations.

From its historical commitment to neutrality, it now has a humanitarian emphasis on locating and identifying the dead on behalf of bereaved families.

In Search of Missing Relatives

In Mexico, the forensic crisis has overwhelmed government authorities across the country.

The historical line of data shows that since 2016 there has been an increase in the number of clandestine graves reported, according to official data from the prosecutors' offices of 23 entities in the country.

The increase in the statistics of inhumations coincides with the strengthening of collectives and the birth of others such as the searching mothers.

74.5% of the more than 108,000 missing persons are men and most of their mothers, sisters and wives become searchers.

The study “Nosotras buscamos”, carried out by the collective “Por Amor a Ellxs” in August 2021, documented recent cases in which it provided accompaniment.

In three months, 133 people requested support for the disappearance of a family member and 85.7 percent of the occasions (114 times) a woman was the one who sought help.

Mexican forensic science is no stranger to these phenomena of forced disappearance and clandestine graves.

It empathize with vulnerable groups in the country such as "The Searching Mothers" to:

- Achieve the prompt identification of their relatives

- Guarantee post mortem human rights, considering respect for their honor, will regarding the final destination of their property, including the corpse itself or its organs

- A dignified burial in accordance with their beliefs

- Identification of the remains and repatriation

This is done under the denomination of "post mortem rights"; as well as the recognition of their legal personality (death certificate).

Building a bridge between human rights and forensic practice has implications for both sides being connected.

Although new and challenging perspectives on forensic work emerge from an engagement with many other disciplines and literatures that have begun to take human rights seriously, the realities of mass graves and scientific practice help expose places where theoretical debates have lost touch with the actual circumstances that forensic experts and other human rights workers often face.

The study of human rights has often gone too far in elegant argumentation oriented toward a world that cannot exist.

The people making those arguments have sometimes demanded things that human rights activism has never been able to achieve while failing to see the great successes, which are not easily described in their vocabularies.

Science as a Privileged Form of Truth

The primacy of scientific identity is woven into the structures by which forensic scientists are trained and interact with each other.

Despite the recent launch of some interdisciplinary programs that offer training in human rights issues as part of a forensic anthropology or forensic science degree, most people who have worked on mass grave investigations received training in the formal methods of their discipline and very little in topics such as law or the history and philosophy of human rights.

This fragmented identity, part science and part human rights, creates paradoxes for individuals, society and organizations alike.

Bodies Can Bear Witness to Themselves

In recent decades, scholars in ethics, psychology, human rights, among others, have made significant efforts to articulate an "ethics of care" theory.

Many of these efforts have been part of a broader attempt to incorporate feminist perspectives into moral theory.

In Mexico, women are leading, not the Mexican state, in efforts to find their relatives.

In 2022, in just the 10 states where women trackers document their findings on social networks, prosecutors reported 358 clandestine graves.

Of these, 221, or more than half, were located by them," that is, the "searching mothers" collectives. The findings of clandestine graves are the culmination, mainly, of the search and investigation efforts of the collectives and not of the authorities.

And that the work of the families has unleashed multiple aggressions and forced displacements against them.

They also assume the search work "because of the acquired social role of caring for the family," according to Lígia de Aquino, of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

For her side, Karla Martinez, of the Hasta Encontrarte collective, emphasizes that most men decide to continue with their lives and jobs after a disappearance. "We women can't do that. Life ends when that person is gone. That moves us and makes us braver to go out and look for them."

According to specialists, the "searching mothers" exhume the terror that is lived in the country and that the authorities want to hide.

The women's collectives sum it up as follows: "Criminals bury bodies in clandestine graves and we dig them up. The authorities release figures that claim that security is getting stronger. But we, with each grave found, show a different reality. We are uncomfortable".

For "searching mothers," a body is home to, the forensic context does not blur the distinction between person and corpse.

Grieving families may attach great importance and significance to the bodies of the missing and disappeared.

They may find the bones of their dead sadly separated from the person they once knew.

Everyday objects collected from the bodies of people in clandestine graves are truly representative of individuality, so that dismembered bodies, bones or organs are not necessarily so.

They can also be the most convincing element for the families to believe that this unrecognizable thing is their missing relative and finally the only thing they want is to give him/her a last tribute according to their religious beliefs in order to close the cycle of pain that began with the forced disappearance of their relative.

The international treaties that contemplate the respect for honor are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

Although these articles in both international treaties refer to living persons, they could be applied post mortem, and while in this situation the corpses do not have the elements to avoid or evade interference against the persons they were in life, their relatives could exercise this right.


Although Mexico is not at war with any other nation, nor is it holding prisoners of war, it is worthwhile to revisit the provisions of the Geneva Accords, as Mexico faces a major situation with missing persons, unidentified persons and migrants in transit to the United States, who die due to adverse conditions and it is difficult to make a final disposition of their remains.

Although Mexico has begun to take measures in this regard, the families of missing persons continue to demand some information about their relatives, and have even chosen to do their own searches, finding more and more clandestine graves and increasing the number of unidentified persons.

From this point on, it is clear that there are many aspects to be taken into consideration in order to fully recognize human rights where advances and innovation in forensic science for human identification collaborate with post mortem human rights.

Currently, the Mexican forensic research project called “The last glance, the las smile” for human identification, which analyses the cadaveric tartar teeth was recognized with honorable mention during the celebration of the international day of human rights.

Mexico has a wide gastronomic variety in every region of the country.

Each state is known for its typical food, so analyzing the dental tartar of disarticulated corpses can speed up the identification of the bodies to return them to their grieving relatives.

The University of Guadalajara's Ombudsman's Office recognized university students for their work in the dissemination, defense and protection of human rights.


1. Román Ortega, El Occidental (December 14, 2022). Año 2022: periodo con más fosas clandestinas.

2. Rosenblatt, Adam, Digging for the disappeared : forensic science after atrocity, Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, (2015).

3. Sandra Ramírez, Contraapunte (September 3, 2021). Nosotras buscamos: informe sobre la situación de desapariciones en Jalisco.

4. Lauro Rodríguez, Guillermo Rivera, (December 14, 2022). ¿Quién teme a los trabajos que hacen las rastreadoras?

5. Eduardo Lorenzo Pérez Campos, et al, “Tópicos Selectos de Ciencias Forenses y Seguridad”, Red Temática de Ciencias Forenses, (2017).

6. Pablo Miranda Ramírez, (December 10, 2022), Reconocen a universitarias y universitarios por labor en derechos humanos.

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