Transitional Justice and the Role of Forensic Science

“The number of victims varies, but the extent of the atrocity is the same. We need to eliminate hatred and acknowledge pain and suffering in order to have a real and long-lasting reconciliation.”

Dr. Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission


Transitional justice refers to the process of addressing human rights violations and abuses as a country moves away from conflict and seeks national healing. As Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has learned from countries such as El Salvador, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, the objectivity and transparency of forensic techniques is critical to creating an accurate record of the past. This record forms the basis of justice for victims, accountability for perpetrators, and a chance for the community to tell the truth about its dark past. In Afghanistan, where over 100 mass grave sites allegedly contain many of Afghanistan’s estimated 1.5 million dead, forensics can help identify victims’ remains and determine how they died.

Since the establishment of the Government of Afghanistan (GoA), there have been only limited efforts to begin a national dialogue on justice, accountability, and reconciliation. Many perpetrators hold power at the local, regional, and national levels. At the same time, Afghan civil society has continued to push for transitional justice, arguing that Afghanistan must start to plan for peace now.

Building Forensic Capacity

PHR has been documenting human rights abuses in Afghanistan since 1997. As part of the grassroots push for transitional justice, we have partnered with Afghan civil society organizations (CSOs) in a multi-year program called Securing Afghanistan’s Past. The program works with national stake-holders to develop the following forensic capacities:

Paraprofessional Grave Site Team: PHR is training candidates for a paraprofessional team of mass grave investigators, drawn from the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) Criminal Investigations Department (CID) investigators, archaeologists from the Ministry of Culture and Information, doctors and students from the forensic department of the Ministry of Public Health, and civil society investigators. Ultimately, Afghanistan will be able to document its own mass grave sites according to standards used in crime scene documentation.

Information Sharing Network: PHR is hosting two annual conferences to introduce necessary forensic concepts and standards to civil society and governmental decision makers, including the Afghan National Police (ANP), judges, prosecutors, university professors, and other CSOs and transitional justice stakeholders. Reports will be shared with relevant actors, including the Government of Afghanistan (GoA), Afghan civil society, and international development partners. The conferences form the basis of a network to discuss mass graves and the missing, in the context of justice and reconciliation.

Human Identification Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis: PHR is leading an international team of forensic scientists and management specialists, legal and political experts, and psychosocial support experts who will work with the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and civil society to assess needs, offer possible solutions, and propose steps to utilize forensic capabilities. The assessment report will provide Afghanistan’s governmental institutions, CSOs, and the international donor community with critical information about the scientific and technical capabilities Afghanistan needs in order to document past abuses.

PHR wishes to thank the many participants — both from civil society and from government — whose engagement made this conference a success. Their substantial input resulted in critical recommendations for the path towards truth-seeking and justice in Afghanistan.