How DNA profiling helped unravel the horror of Bosnia’s genocide


(This article appeared in New Scientist)

Bringing Radovan Karadzic to book for his part in war crimes in the former Yugoslavia included groundbreaking use of mass DNA evidence, says Thomas John Parsons.

Radovan Karadzic is beginning a 40-year sentence after being found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. It marks the end of a trial that began in 2010 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Prominent among the former Bosnian Serb leader’s offences during the Bosnian conflict was his role in the Srebrenica genocide, in which 8,000 Bosniak (muslim) men and boys were executed over four days in July 1995.

Identifying victims was a crucial part of ensuring justice was done. Forensic work connected with this conflict became the largest DNA identification project the world had seen, carried out by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), the organisation I work for.

Profiling techniques had advanced to the extent that they could be used to account for tens of thousands of persons missing as a result of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. ICMP invited families of the missing to provide blood samples. DNA from relatives was recorded in a database and compared to DNA from human remains recovered from clandestine graves.

This enabled identifications that would have been impossible otherwise and allowed them to be used as evidence, restarting a stalled identification process that had reached its limit using traditional means, such as skeletal anthropology, clothing and dental records.

It resulted in an exponential rise in the number of identifications, and produced scientific data able to withstand the rigours of the courtroom. It turned out to be the largest inclusion of DNA evidence in a war crimes case ever.

Today, more than 70 per cent of the 40,000 people who were missing at the end of the conflict have been accounted for, including 7,000 of the 8,000 killed in the Srebrenica massacre.

The use of DNA was particularly important in regard to Srebrenica because the perpetrators returned in late 1995 and tried to hide evidence by moving bodies from primary mass graves to secondary and tertiary graves. Human remains were broken up by mechanical diggers and scattered across sites up to 50 kilometres apart, making identification through traditional means almost impossible.

The evidence provided supported the prosecution case – offering incontrovertible data that thousands of men and boys, now named as individual victims, were murdered after the fall of Srebrenica. Moreover, the pattern of DNA-linkages within and between primary and secondary graves informed the court of systematic activities associated with the crime and later attempts to conceal the bodies.

DNA-based identification methods have permitted thousands of families in the Western Balkans to recover the remains of their loved ones. The program has also allowed many of them to secure their right to justice.

While the astronomical certainty of identification achievable by DNA rarely by itself decides guilt or innocence, its application in a criminal case, as in that of Karadzic, establishes an objective framework of fact that can stand as a powerful antidote to politicized and tendentious narratives of conflict or events.

War criminals such as Karadzic now face legal mechanisms that can turn to rigorous scientific methods applied on a vast scale to establish a factual bedrock upon which to pursue justice.

Thomas Parsons has been ICMP’s director of forensic sciences since 2006 and has provided evidence and expert testimony in numerous trials, including that of Radovan Karadzic.