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December 02, 2013

Human Rights

Researchers Work To Find Justice for Victims

By Shilo Rea

Immediately after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the international community focused on providing food, shelter and medical assistance to survivors.

But for the families of the thousands feared dead or missing, a long-term recovery from the devastating storm also depends on managing the remains honestly and honorably. That's the role Carnegie Mellon's Alex John London and Jay D. Aronson are helping to play.

London and Aronson are working to improve standards and offer ethical guidelines for identifying victims in conflict and disaster areas to help provide justice to victims and their families.

London, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Policy, said CMU is the place for this type of humanitarian effort because "CMU is a hotbed of multi-disciplinary work with a strong emphasis on the ethical and policy dimensions of new technologies."

London and Aronson recently spoke at "The Missing: An Agenda For the Future," a high-level international conference that brought together the world's leading experts to discuss missing persons from armed conflicts, human rights abuses, disasters, migration, human trafficking, organized crime and other cases. Held at The Hague in the Netherlands, London and Aronson presented on standards, ethics and data protection - a similar topic to a recent paper they published in "Science."

Aronson, associate professor of science, technology and society in the Department of History, argued that identifying the missing should not be a luxury and is crucial to enforcing human rights, clarifying history and facilitating justice. It also plays a critical role for the victims' families - confirming the death of a loved one is a first step in the healing process and is often necessary for families to secure benefits and assert other rights, such as remarrying.

"Unfortunately, access to the resources and technologies to timely identify remains is significantly restricted by the willingness and ability of governments and other organizations to pay for them," said Aronson, who also directs CMU's Center for Human Rights Science.

"This means that some victims of conflict and disaster have been identified (in Bosnia or in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks), while others have not (in Rwanda or Haiti)," he said. "The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami illustrates the inequities: international efforts to identify the remains of victims were undertaken in Thailand, where there was a high density of Western tourists, but not in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or other affected areas."

To that end, Aronson reiterated what he, London and the University of Pittsburgh's Lisa S. Parker called for in the Sept. 13 issue of "Science" - the creation of international structure to promote more equal access to forensic identification technologies.

London advocated for policies to ensure that samples and information gathered for the purposes of identifying missing people are not misused and that the process is strong enough to withstand legal scrutiny.

"If families believe that their genetic material will be used in ways that could result in their being subject to extra policing, political reprisal or the disclosure of health-related information, then they may be unwilling to participate in the identification process," London said.

"Key to ensuring trust are clearly articulated, enforceable procedures that safeguard the rights and welfare of participants and that ensure high standards of scientific quality."

Authors Explore Proper Ways To Record Deaths

The recent violence in Syria vividly demonstrates the difficulty - and importance - of accurately recording and estimating nonmilitary deaths in conflict areas.

"Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict" surveys the challenges of this task, presenting and evaluating methods for ensuring that these tragic killings are properly acknowledged. Co-edited by Carnegie Mellon's Jay D. Aronson and Baruch Fischhoff and the University of Pittsburgh's Taylor B. Seybolt, the book contains contributions from the top researchers in the field, presenting case studies from Latin America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Published by Oxford University Press, the book stems from a 2009 workshop co-sponsored by CMU and Pitt and examines the most commonly used casualty recording and estimation techniques and evaluates their strengths and weaknesses. It also analyzes how figures are used - and sometimes misused - by governments, rebels, human rights advocates, war crime tribunals and others.

"One day, we may have an international convention, guaranteeing proper, respectful records of all those killed in conflicts," said Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences and Department of Engineering and Public Policy. "When we do, the methods reported in this book will help to ensure that the work is done with the accuracy and dignity that individuals deserve. Perhaps a clearer picture of these tragedies will reduce them in the future, while helping the survivors today."