A BU research project to develop a comprehensive human rights framework around mass graves has been awarded over £1.6 million from the European Research Council (ERC).
Mass Grave Protection, Investigation & Engagement: a comprehensive universal human rights framework – or MaGPIE – will be led by Professor Melanie Klinkner, Professor of International Law at BU.
Professor Melanie Klinkner
Mass graves exist across the globe on a shocking scale, with thousands of victims and families seeking answers. However, currently there are no global records for mass graves – meaning the scale and nature of the problem is not well understood.
There is also no universal framework for protecting and investigating mass graves to safeguard sites and human remains, as well as the rights and interests of survivors.
The MaGPIE project will respond to this significant knowledge and policy gap and develop a comprehensive human rights framework to inform the protection, investigation and stakeholder engagement around mass graves.
Professor Klinkner said: “I am grateful and honoured to have been given this opportunity by the European Research Council. Mass graves, the focus of my research, are a very sensitive topic: for each body concealed in a mass grave, there is a family or community suffering from anguish and grief.
“This five-year research project will explore how dignified, rights-compliant engagement with mass graves can be progressed, asking what and how we can do better for affected families and survivors.”
This work builds on Professor Klinkner’s research into the protection and investigation of mass graves.
Professor Einar Thorsen, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Media & Communication at Bournemouth University, said: “Receiving this prestigious and highly competitive award from the European Research Council is an outstanding achievement and testament to the quality of research being undertaken by Professor Klinkner and the team at Bournemouth University.
“Protecting mass graves and the rights of victims and their loved ones is an issue of international importance and this funding reflects our commitment to addressing global challenges and enriching society across research, education and practice.”
Professor Klinkner is one of 321 researchers from 37 countries across Europe to receive the funding, chosen from 2,222 applications through a rigorous review process.
The funding – worth €657 million in total – is part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. It will help excellent scientists, who have 7 to 12 years’ experience after their PhDs, to pursue their most promising ideas. Only 31 British researchers, including Professor Klinkner, have been selected.
President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin said: “ERC Consolidator grants support researchers at a crucial time of their careers, strengthening their independence, reinforcing their teams and helping them establish themselves as leaders in their fields. And this backing above all gives them a chance to pursue their scientific dreams.”
Following the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children in Kamloops (British Columbia, Canada) sees BU expertise on mass grave policies published:Overarching principles ought to be applied in Kamloops for a careful, considerate, culturally appropriate investigation into the unmarked graves of 215 children
Mass graves are a worldwide phenomenon that exists on a shocking scale, but they are usually identified with conflict and gross human rights violations, typically in countries ravaged by poverty and inequality. Yet the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children in Kamloops, British Columbia has made global headlines, triggering a variety of emotions, reactions and questions.
Overarching principles for protection and investigation efforts
Although mass graves vary enormously, the consequences of not protecting and investigating mass graves are significant. Relatives continue to suffer because they do not know what happened to their loved ones (in itself a form of inhumane and degrading treatment), and evidence essential to identification, documentation and, where relevant, prosecution efforts may be contaminated, disturbed or lost. The careful, considerate, culturally appropriate yet legally compliant and scientifically robust protection and investigation of mass graves is therefore paramount, and has been the subject of significant research and deliberation, as evidenced by the 2020 publication of the Bournemouth Protocol on Mass Grave Protection and Investigation (also available in French).
As further details and information emerge on the discovery in Kamloops, it seems apt to reflect on the overarching principles that ought to apply during grave protection and investigation efforts in this particular context.
From the outset, the complexity of mass grave investigations should not be underestimated. Such investigations are lengthy and expensive processes, requiring significant planning, co-ordination, resources, official authorization and, at times, political will. All this means that there will be a wide range of individual, collective and societal interests and needs that must be considered but may not all be compatible or readily reconcilable. In addition – and this may sound distressing – in situations of significant scale or absence of the relevant data from relatives, it may not be possible to identify and return all victims from a mass grave. It is therefore vital that, despite the inevitable pressure of a highly charged emotional context, expectations are carefully managed.
A do no harm approach in these circumstances will actively seek to avoid undermining existing structures and relationships that are essential for community cohesion. It is important to avoid creating inequalities or perceptions of bias or to entrench existing inequalities. It will include a clear respect for and, where possible, adherence to cultural sensitivities, beliefs and norms of victims and/or their families to the extent they do not adversely affect the achievement of an effective investigation.
The physical and emotional safety of all involved, the relatives and the investigation team alike, are paramount. In the context of mass graves, safety, dignity, privacy and well-being of victims and their families should be a key concern for all actors without distinction. While the actual grave may have been created decades ago when the Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation, initiatives to support physical and psychological safety should be in place.
Investigations must be independent and impartial
That an investigation should be independent and impartial is a rather obvious point to make. And yet, since the investigation will relate to an era of systematic state-instigated discrimination, it is poignant and relevant: without a non-discriminatory and impartial approach to the grave protection and investigation process, the legitimacy of the work may be questioned by the affected community. To enhance public trust, investigations must be independent and impartial and must be seen to be so.
For mass grave investigations to result in identification, it will be critical to acquire personal details and other identifying data, and confidentiality, consistent with national legislation, has to be assured. Investigative processes often entail the need for data sharing but any data sharing should be limited only to those individuals and bodies necessary to ensure the achievement of the objectives of the exhumation process and to the extent agreed by the individuals concerned. Similarly, at all stages of the process (the preliminary investigation, the actual excavation, identification and return of human remains) transparency of processes is key.
Clear and ongoing communication will help provide the platform for transparency. Communication strategies should ideally envisage and accommodate a two-way flow of information between the investigative team and the families, and incorporate regular updates.
Commitments to families must be kept
Finally, all parties involved in the protection and investigation of the mass grave should avoid making commitments to families that they may be unable to keep.
In addition to these overarching principles that ought to apply to all phases of mass grave protection and investigation, careful planning for the actual physical investigation is essential. Meticulous planning, particularly in relation to the actual excavation is critical for all subsequent phases of the process, including identification efforts, return of human remains and continued community liaison.
But in the long term beyond the investigative phase, there are also justice and commemorative aspects to consider from a policy perspective. Alongside potential accountability processes and claims for remedies, a further question arises: What will happen to the original site at the school? An excavated mass grave may become a memorial site in its own right, deserving of that recognition and potentially long-term legal protection. Conversely, a newly created burial site or place for commemoration will hold great significance for individual and/or collective commemoration and may also constitute a form of reparation.
Mass graves are a stark reminder of recent history and memory; they may form part of educational materials and national discourse on the past; they may also become a site for community support. These graves in particular may symbolize the start of more searches into unknown graves and resting places. As reported in the media, many more children died in residential schools with few bodies returned home.
Co-ordination and collaboration required
Since it is predicted that more such graves are to be found, their resolution and investigation will require the co-ordination and collaboration of a multitude of experts to implement early protection measures, facilitate, where possible, the investigation and exhumation of the grave for identification purposes and the return of human remains to family members. All this, in turn, must be overseen by relevant authorities, with due regard for the applicable law.
If there is suspicion of more such graves, the establishment of a mass grave management role or office that assumes overall responsibility for the operational management of mass graves including adherence to standard operating procedures; maintenance of community liaison, health, safety and well-being on-site; implementation of reporting structures and communication strategy; and co-ordination of the identification and return of human remains process might be beneficial.
In short, mass graves are incredibly complex features placing investigative duties on the state. This in turn requires extensive practitioner engagement, resources and careful consideration of individual and societal needs to ultimately advance their rights to truth and justice.
Dr Melanie Klinkner studies the use of forensic science for investigation and prosecution of atrocities such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Here she talks about the International Day of the Disappeared.
Today serves as a reminder of the number of people around the world who are missing as a result of armed conflicts. We remember the families who face a daily struggle to understand what has happened to their loved one.
Enforced disappearances have been and continue to be used by oppressive regimes in an attempt to dispose of political opponents secretly and to instil fear in the population. Article 2 of the Convention for the Protection for all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006) defines disappearances as ‘the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law’.
The Red Cross work tirelessly to reunite families where possible and organisations such as the International Commission on Missing Person support identification of bodies.
In the aftermath of conflict and gross human rights violations, there is an overwhelming need of the families is to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones and, where the worst has happened, to receive their human remains as an absolute proof of death and to facilitate burial and commemoration rituals.
This need is mirrored in international human rights and international humanitarian law development, which has advanced the recognition of victim rights of national or international crimes and human rights abuses. The Basic Principles encompass the need for victims and their families to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones and demands that the bodies of those disappeared are recovered, identified and buried.
Melanie works alongside Ian Hanson and Paul Cheetham in the School of Applied Sciences, who have developed standard operating procedures for forensic investigation of mass graves. These have been used internationally in judicial and humanitarian contexts, bringing those responsible for atrocity crimes to justice and providing much needed answers to families.
Bournemouth University’s Senior Lecturer in Forensic Archaeology, Ian Hanson, has featured in a New Scientist article about mass graves in Libya.
New Scientist journalist Andy Coghlan visited BU's mass graves simulation exercise in July
An estimated 5000 people went missing during Gaddafi’s dictatorship and, following his death last week, the country’s transitional government is preparing to exhume and identify bodies in mass graves.
Speaking to New Scientist journalist Andy Coghlan, Ian said: “Each site should be treated as if it’s a crime scene, and you must presume there might be criminal investigations in the future.”
Ian has advised on protocol and procedures for mass graves excavations following the Balkan and Iraq conflicts.
Since April 2009 he has spent a great deal of time in Iraq, developing further programmes that introduce new trainees to investigations, the law and science involved in recovering evidence from the many mass graves that remain in the country, and to establish competency and protocol for global scientific and legal standards.