The Science of Human Rights


Bill Haglund's job isn't for everyone, but there's no denying the importance of his chosen field. As director of the International Forensics Program for the nonprofit association Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Haglund's mission is to document crimes against humanity. He and his teams seek physical evidence of atrocities worldwide, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. Haglund organizes teams of experts to investigate sites of suspected crimes, coordinates the exhumation of mass-grave sites, and analyzes human remains for clues to the victims' identities and the circumstances of their demise. The work is complicated by the fact that those remains may either be relatively fresh or many years old and badly deteriorated. The work has many motivations, but as with most science, at the core lies a hunger for truth: By accumulating physical evidence, Haglund and colleagues aim to document crimes against humanity for the benefit of grieving families, humanity, international justice, and history.

"By studying the site of a mass grave," Haglund said in a recent telephone interview, "we can tell how it was dug, what kind of machinery was used. Were the people killed there or were they brought in and dumped there? Sometimes you can track weapons around the grave site, people moving around the area and shooting people."

International Exhumation

Regrettably, Haglund doesn't have to worry about job security. So far this year he has visited Afghanistan twice, investigating mass-grave sites in February and again late last month. During his most recent visit he also did work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, assessing the transitional government's forensics capacity. "And I'm on my way to Nigeria, Georgia, and Sierra Leone," he notes. He has also worked recently in Rwanda and Croatia, and he has active projects in Bosnia, Georgia, East Timor, Sri Lanka, and India. It's a grim way to see the world, but Haglund gets around.

Training in Tragedy

Haglund started out doing forensics work in more traditional settings. Shortly after finishing college he and his wife moved to Seattle. "The first job I came by was as an investigator in the medical examiner's office. I had an embalmer's license and a biology background and I thought, 'I can do this,' so I did."

Haglund owes his entrée into the work he does now to the efforts of a serial killer. "What really made me focus more on forensic anthropology," says Haglund, "was a serial murder case where about 50 young women were killed. The remains were left out in the woods. For seven, eight years we were finding bodies, and they were skeletons, scavenged, so it became a real challenge to figure out what was really going on and to identify the bodies. That initiated my going back to school and getting my Ph.D. in forensic anthropology. Then in [the early 1990s] I went to Croatia with a commission of experts. I was looking into the abduction of about 200 patients from the Vukovar hospital when Vukovar fell. We went to a place called Ovcara with the idea of digging a grave there, but the Serbs had tanks and we had trowels and so we didn't dig that grave. PHR was involved in that, with the U.N., and when I came back to the United States they gave me the option to go to Guatemala, Honduras, and I did that, sort of on my vacations." Further work for PHR in Rwanda in 1995 led to the offer of a full-time job at PHR.

Tanks and Trowels; Toilets and Tribunals

So how does his work differ from the work he did at the medical examiner's office? "We take many things for granted when we work in a domestic situation," he notes, "like access to the crime scene." Situations like the one in Croatia aren't all that rare, Haglund notes, as often the people responsible for the atrocities still control the area when the investigation begins, and they typically aren't eager to cooperate.

There are other differences between domestic and international forensics work. "In domestic investigations we have offices with doors and electricity and water and fluoroscopes and lab techs and rubber gloves and toilet paper and things like that. Places like Rwanda you have to take everything, from toilet paper to water filtration systems. You have to clean the water to have pure water to do x-ray processing, so you need a water truck to haul the water and a pump to get it out of the lake. You have to take your own generators, your own autopsy tables, your own shovels, your own cars."

Documenting Crimes Against Humanity

Haglund's motivations are complex. "It's a nasty thing, these extrajudicial executions," Haglund points out. "We're doing this work for a multitude of reasons, from identifying remains of individuals and returning them to their families, to aiding the grief resolution process, to accountability. I've just been to the holocaust museum," says Haglund, "and I was struck by a quote that Hitler made in a speech when he was getting rid of the Jews, in 1939. He said, in effect, that nobody's going to do anything [about the holocaust]. After all, said Hitler [speaking of the genocide that started in1915] who remembers the Armenians?

"Physical evidence makes us much less vulnerable to historical revisionism," he continues. "If you have physical evidence, you're setting the record straight in a way that's credible. Witness statements can always be argued against, memories fade, things change."

Making a Living Studying the Dead

Is human rights forensics a viable profession? Not in the usual sense. While there's an endless amount of work to be done, the resources for doing it are very limited, because organizations such as PHR accept little money from governments. (PHR does accept funding for particular projects from international organizations such as the U.N., but PHR's core support comes from private sources.) Accepting support directly from national governments would compromise the perception of independence and, consequently, their credibility. Almost all of their human rights forensics work is funded by the PHR membership, private individuals, and private foundations. So don't quit your day job.

Scientific specialties from which PHR draws forensic experts:

  • Archaeology (field work emphasis)

  • DNA/Genetics

  • Epidemiology

  • Pathology

  • Physical Anthropology (emphasis in forensics or osteology)

  • Psychosocial Support

A full-time human rights forensics workforce does exist, but it numbers perhaps several dozen scientists worldwide. Human rights forensics remains more an avocation than a vocation; Haglund himself got his start working during vacations, and even today most of the people who do this work do it on the side, either as paid consultants or, more often, as unpaid volunteers. Competition is stiff, even for unpaid positions, which isn't surprising when you consider that in an era when science is increasingly linked to commerce, opportunities to do scientific work that is simply and unambiguously in the interest of humanity are rare.

If you're already practicing science and you want to do this kind of work, consider extending your research in a direction with explicit relevance to human rights investigations. If you're still a student, educate yourself well in a relevant field and seek conventional employment, whether at a university or a medical examiner's office. Useful ancillary skills will improve your odds of winning work, as will the ability to deal well with horror and to work under less-than-ideal conditions. But as with most science professions, the most important thing is to be among the very best at what you do.

If you feel the human-rights-forensics calling, who do you call? William Haglund, although he prefers to be contacted via e-mail. Haglund coordinates most of the investigations that take place worldwide, and he keeps a long list of experts who are interested in this field. Getting on Haglund's list is probably the best way to enter the field. So drop him a line and send him a C.V. He'll look it over and, if he thinks you might be useful, he'll add you to the list.

The PHR Web site has a lot of information about their human rights work and about the field of human rights forensics.

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