International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances: How Can Forensics Assist in the Location and Identification of Victims of Enforced Disappearances?

Please note this blog post addresses deceased individuals and human remains.


The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances takes place on Sunday 30th August 2020. According the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances (2010), an enforced disappearance can be defined 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 the authorization, 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.” Enforced disappearances are not confined to one country or continent, nor did they only happen in the past. Thousands of children and adults disappear on a yearly basis around the world.

Those working within Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology have been involved in the search, recovery, and identification of victims of enforced disappearances for several decades. At Staffordshire University, this an area covered on our Forensic Science and Forensic Investigation Undergraduate degree programmes. Our Forensic Investigation students not only have the opportunity to learn how to identify skeletal remains, but they also develop the skills needed to construct biological profiles for the purposes of identification. Students will also learn how to identify skeletal remains that have been subjected to taphonomic processes, which may occur naturally or may be an intentional act to conceal remains (e.g. burning). Identification skills are developed and put into context through the use of scenario based practicals and case studies are used to enable exploration of how forensic anthropologists have identified victims of enforced disappearance around the world, e.g. from present-day Mexico, Argentina’s military Junta, and the Spanish Civil War. Enforced disappearances are focused upon in detail, including the protocols that are followed in the search, recovery, and identification of human remains from a range of contexts in Iraq, Cambodia, Argentina, and Bosnia, to name but a few.

The importance of locating and, indeed, identifying those that have lost their lives following enforced disappearance is two-fold. Firstly, we must consider human rights of the deceased. As Claire Moon (2019, 55) highlights, the deceased “have the rights to identity, to return to families, and to proper burial”, and such rights may act “to compensate for rights that have been stripped away in life”. Secondly, we must assist the living that are left behind when family members and friends disappear. Without the identification of their loved ones, family members are left searching for answers and, in some cases, take it upon themselves to try and locate their kin. For example, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, families would carry out searches for the disappeared, whilst in present day Mexico, families are employing forensic techniques to locate and identify their kin (Moon 2020). Enforced disappearances destroy the lives of families and communities, but those of us working within forensics can give the living and the deceased a voice. We should not only be training the next generation of forensic scientists, but carrying out outreach to support the families that have been left behind.   

If you would like to know more about enforced disappearances, there is a plethora of resources online. However, I would recommend the following Twitter accounts for up-to-date information.


Equipo Argentino de Anthropología

Human Rights, Human Remains (research project led by Claire Moon): 

United Nations

UN Human Rights


Dr Kirsty Squires

Senior Lecturer in Forensic Anthropology




Moon, C. 2019. What Remains? Human Rights After Death, pp.39-58. In: Squires, K., Errickson, D. and Márquez-Grant, N. (eds.) Ethical Approaches to Human Remains: A Global Challenge in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology. Cham: Springer.

Moon, C. 2020. Extraordinary deathwork: New developments in, and the social significance of, forensic humanitarian action, pp.37-48. In: Parra, R.C., Zapico, S.C. and Ubelaker, D.H. (eds.) Forensic Science and Humanitarian Action: Interacting with the Dead and the Living. London: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances. 2010. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance [online]. Available at:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *