Protecting the Dead – perspectives on casualty recording from an ICRC forensic specialist.

This article is based on a presentation given by Oran Finegan (Head of Forensics, International Committee of the Red Cross) at a webinar on ‘Human Rights and Casualty Recording’, 5 February 2021.

The year 2021 finds us in a rapidly changing world that will require our swift ability to adapt if we are to play a role in supporting those affected by conflict, disasters and other emergencies around the world. From recovery through to identification and disposition, protection of the dead remains a real challenge. With almost 100 forensic specialists working in over 50 contexts around the world today, the International Committee of the Red Cross is seeing at first hand the impact that both good and bad practices of recording casualties have on this.

In death, we all deserve to be protected, to have our whereabouts known and to preserve our identity. Families and communities should be able to mourn and remember their dead with dignity. Without proper casualty recording these rights are seriously jeopardised. It is also worth highlighting that the need for the parties to a conflict to properly account for and document the dead can be found under International Humanitarian Law. For example, IHL outlines that parties to an armed conflict must record all available information prior to disposal of the dead, with a view to their identification.

We need to recognise that conflict has changed and we must make sure our approach in ensuring the protection and dignity of the dead is adapted accordingly.  When considering how the dead are documented and managed, we see the challenges posed and the benefits to be gained by proper, accurate casualty recording and documentation. Advances in forensics have allowed us to better use the information recorded to aid in the identification process and successful disposition of the dead. However, access to these developments in forensic technology and skills are often beyond the reach of many affected populations. Failure to recognise this can lead to unrealistic expectations and the implementation of programs and systems which are incompatible with the reality on the ground.

There is often a rush to provide forensic equipment and infrastructural support without a basic assessment of what already exists or, more importantly, what can be absorbed by those working on the ground. We must ensure support is thought through so that those on the ground are best placed to address the challenges they face.

Casualty recording should be incorporated into the planning phase of conflict / disaster response, to ensure those recovering and documenting the dead have access to standardised guidelines and procedures that can be implemented by trained staff. One of the ICRC’s major observations is that preparedness planning, especially any consideration for dealing with and documenting the dead, is often completely absent. We strongly advocate for better preparedness planning, and work with concerned States and international agencies to develop this.

We often find that basic processes are lacking, including the assignation of unique case numbers and implementation of proper tracking procedures to ensure that bodies are not ‘lost’ in the system or at their final disposition. Standardisation of the information collected on casualties is extremely important especially for regional and international coordination. Contextualistion of the information recorded is also extremely important. Understanding local terminology and practices is key to maximising the potential of good casualty recording.

Challenges of modern conflict include its growing urbanisation, which increasingly draws civilians into the firing line. Recovering and documenting the dead in such environments can be extremely complex, and first responders are often expected to play a greater role in this process. Refugee camps are also often forgotten when it comes to understanding the implications of poor management or absence of documentation of the dead. With health and death care infrastructure in urban conflicts also being impacted, systems which are already stretched often reach breaking point. Regardless of how well-trained staff may be, if they and their supporting infrastructure are detrimentally impacted by conflict, their ability to properly document, track, and store those who have died will be undermined.

In any post-conflict environment, one of the most common and challenging issues is that of unidentified human remains. In some instances this lack of identification is due to the absence of casualty recording, or recording of poor quality. We have seen the impact this has had on communities and families, and how it has at times eroded trust in processes underway to record and identify the dead. Conversely, while good practice in casualty recording cannot guarantee identification of the dead, it has greatly reduced the quantity of human remains left unidentified. It has also reduced the number of families receiving highly incomplete sets of their loved ones’ remains.

In short, casualty recording is an essential part of the process of recovering, identifying and protecting the dignity of the dead in conflict. But recording must be standardised and contextualised to be effective. Forensics can play a key role in these actions, but we must build systems and programs that are cognisant of the realities and capacities on the ground in a specific context if we are to be successful.

Oran Finegan tweets @oranfinegan.