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Bones of Contention: Forensic Science and Human Rights Violations from the Katyn Forest to The Hague


This dissertation is a history of the use of mass grave exhumations in investigating human rights violations, war crimes, and acts of atrocity in the second half of the twentieth century. This history follows forensic scientists and non-governmental organizations to conflict zones around the world, from Germany in World War II to Latin America, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the former Yugoslavia. As it does so, it tells a history of the increasingly international and scientific nature of human rights investigations, in which forensic scientists and the bones they dig up came to play an important role in the historical and legal reconstructions of genocides and other human rights violations.

In 1930s and 1940s Germany, as elsewhere on the European continent, forensic evidence and forensic experts were common features of criminal investigations and prosecutions. It was in the unlikely context of Nazi Germany, though, that forensic science merged with humanitarian and human rights sensibilities and brought about the first international, scientist-led, forensic investigation of a mass grave containing victims of large-scale violence. In 1943, some of Europe’s most respected forensic scientists gathered at a pit in the Katyn Forest, in the western Soviet Union, containing the bodies of some five thousand Polish officers in uniform. The team was tasked with determining which of Europe’s totalitarian regimes was responsible for their deaths. This grand forensic experiment and its aftermath anticipated both the value and the challenges of introducing human bodies into legal and historical reconstructions of past events.

After Katyn, large-scale, human rights-driven forensic exhumations did not reemerge for another four decades. When they did, they met an entirely different geopolitical landscape, one in which such investigations found increased resonance with governments, as well as with victims’ families and survivors of genocide and other atrocities. This traction helped sustain and proliferate their use around the globe. The thawing of the Cold War allowed space for grassroots calls for transitional justice, efforts to end ongoing human rights abuses and genocides, and to investigate ones that had already occurred. This culminated after the Srebrenica genocide, where forensic evidence was used on an unprecedented scale. In telling a history of how and why international scientists, NGOs, national governments, and international criminal tribunals came to view forensic evidence as valuable in the global post-Cold War project of documenting and prosecuting international crimes, this dissertation is distinguished from recent historiography by its focus on the motivations and actions of the individual practitioners who undertook this human rights project.

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