Carnegie Mellon University
Post-Conflict/Post-Disaster DNA Identification

Identification of the Missing

Research Team: Jay Aronson (PI, Carnegie Mellon), Sarah Wagner (co-PI, University of North Caroline, Greensboro), Alex John London (co-I, Carnegie Mellon), Adam Rosenblatt (consultant, Stanford), Lindsay Smith (consultant, UCLA), and Lola Vollen (consultant, UC-Berkeley)

Advances in DNA testing have changed how investigators respond to large-scale atrocities. By enabling the identification of human remains—even small, partial, or badly damaged body parts—DNA analysis can provide solace to loved ones and evidence for criminal proceedings. These developments, however, have fundamentally altered how mass graves and disaster sites are handled and created a host of challenging questions. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, this project launched with a 2011 meeting in Pittsburgh where more than 50 forensic scientists, policy specialists, ethicists, and social scientists from 12 countries convened to identify key ethical and political issues. Between 2011 and 2015, project researchers conducted interviews, oral histories, ethnographic and archival research, and policy analysis in Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chile, Guatemala, Rwanda, South Africa,
and the United States. They investigated:

  • Whether scientists and relatives of the missing share a common understanding of capacities and limitations of the DNA identification process and whether there are ways to improve communication between the groups;
  • Challenges in defining best practices for dealing with incidental findings like misattributed paternity;
  • Obligations of for-profit biotechnology companies to victims and human rights organizations that contract their services;
  • Issues of privacy, data ownership, informed consent, and illicit use associated with the creation of large genetic databases in countries emerging from conflict or disaster;
  • Why resources and political will are dedicated to certain missing persons cases but not others.

They advised the International Commission on Missing Persons; the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; and the FBI’s Scientific Working Group on Disaster Victim Identification. The project also resulted in Principal Investigator Jay D. Aronson’s book, Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero (Harvard University Press, 2016), and a host of articles.