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Rebecca Gowland

Professor Rebecca Gowland from our Department of Archaeology shares her research insights and reflects on how the deceased are incorporated into discussions of human rights.

Last month a vigil was held in Tuam, Galway, to commemorate the 796 babies and children who died in the Bon Secours mother and baby home between 1925 and 1961. Their small bodies had been disposed of in an underground sewage chamber and will now be exhumed after years of campaigning by survivors and family members.

This raises some important questions – how do we establish the identity of skeletonised remains? In the case of clandestine burials, how do we even find them? How do we recover their bodies, identify them, and return them to their loved ones? How do we discover the likely cause of death and/or evidence for neglect and abuse during life? These questions form the basis of an online course developed in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a new MSc Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology at Durham University, with an emphasis on international humanitarian forensic work.

The 10th of December marks Human Rights Day and, as someone who works with (and for) the dead, it is, for me, a time for reflecting on how the deceased are incorporated into discussions of human rights. The very impetus for the Declaration of Human Rights was the atrocities perpetrated during the Second World War, and especially the Holocaust. Important legislation has since built on these foundations, including the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death which stipulates that “protection of the right to life means preventing the arbitrary deprivation of life” and demands accountability for transgressions. The work of forensic archaeologists and anthropologists has been crucial in providing evidence in cases when these principles have not been upheld.

As an archaeologist who specialises in human skeletal remains, my work involves the recovery and analysis of the dead. I examine those who died hundreds of years ago in order to reconstruct lives in the distant past. But the methods that I use and develop are applicable to all periods of time – including the present. There are many commonalities between excavating an archaeological site and processing a crime scene: both are destructive and require technical expertise to maximise evidence retrieval and record findings. Likewise, techniques of skeletal analysis are the same whether the person died a thousand years or fifty years ago. At Durham we have been at the forefront of developing new methods of analysis, especially for infants and children, who are all too often victims of conflict or domestic violence. At Durham we have trained forensic practitioners from around the world in these new methods.

Since the 1980s, the disciplines of forensic anthropology and archaeology have been used increasingly to investigate human rights abuses. In the mid-1980s during Argentina’s transition to democracy, forensic archaeology and anthropology became critical disciplines for providing evidence of the terrors inflicted by the military between 1976-1983. Even today, the violence within Ukraine will demand the united efforts of forensic practitioners to resolve issues relating to war crimes and establish the identity of victims.

The remains of the dead are now recognised as a key source of evidence for war crimes, as well as other abuses such as starvation and neglect. The dead body serves as a powerful, silent witness to such atrocities. Furthermore, establishing the identity of the deceased and returning bodies to their families is a recognised pathway to political reconciliation in post-conflict countries (e.g. Cyprus). To this end, I work alongside human rights lawyers representing families of the missing in post-conflict regions, for whom not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones is a source of constant anguish.

In July 2022, the Irish government passed The Institutional Burials Bill into law. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman stated that this legislation will “afford the children interred in Tuam a dignified and respectful burial” that may “finally bring some form of solace and closure to the families and survivors who have been so deeply affected by this abhorrent situation”. These investigations will provide a compelling testimony of the abuses suffered by these children during their short lives. The identities of some of them will be established, their personhood restored, and they can be returned to their families. All of them will finally receive a dignified burial. Respect for the person (and people) is at the heart of our approach to investigating the dead in human rights contexts. Human rights for the dead demand dignity, respect and care and these components are as essential as they are to human rights for the living.

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