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Iraq: Protect and preserve mass grave sites
(New York, April 30, 2003) U.S.-led coalition forces, working with local religious and secular leaders, should urgently protect and preserve mass grave sites, Human Rights Watch said today. They should also establish formal bodies and procedures to investigate, exhume and accurately identify the dead so that remains can be returned to families, deaths can be legally certified, and important evidence of atrocities can be preserved.

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Background on War in Iraq

"These efforts, born of sorrow and a desire to restore dignity to the dead, may actually destroy any chance of identifying victims or determining how they died."

Dinah PoKempner
General Counsel of Human Rights Watch

In the past weeks there have been many reports of families attempting to unearth the remains of their relatives in recently discovered gravesites throughout Iraq.

"These efforts, born of sorrow and a desire to restore dignity to the dead, may actually destroy any chance of identifying victims or determining how they died," said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch. "The tragedy is that almost no one's interest will be served by the natural impulse to recover a loved one's remains, rather than wait for expert assistance in exhuming and reburying the dead."

Human Rights Watch investigators on the ground in Iraq have also found sites that may pose serious risks to the living because of the presence of unexploded ordnance.

"Mass graves are often crime scenes, and the coalition forces, as the occupying power in Iraq, have a duty to secure the evidence that can bring the perpetrators of such atrocities to justice," said PoKempner.

In the best of circumstances, identifying who is buried in an undocumented grave requires collecting information about the person prior to death (such as dental and other medical records, clothing and other personal effects, where the person was last seen, military and social conditions in the area, etc.), documenting both the grave site and the exhumation, as well as analyzing the remains scientifically.

In the case of graves where more than one body is buried, identification is even more complicated, requiring special forensic procedures to ensure that each individual's remains are accurately isolated and that information relevant to establishing the date and manner of death is meticulously documented at each stage of the exhumation. Digging into mass grave sites randomly or without the requisite training can quickly destroy the chance of establishing any facts about the people buried there, including their identity, exactly how and when they died, from what medical causes, and under what circumstances. Often general features of a gravesite, such as the disposition of bodies and the efforts at burying, moving or concealing them, can lead to important criminal evidence of acts.

An office of missing persons that can receive the details of victims and aid in the recovery of their remains needs to be established without delay, and its function publicized widely. Such an office, working in conjunction with international and local non-governmental organizations and the justice system, will give families recourse for securing a dignified recognition of their loss. A procedure for securing legal recognition of exhumations and verification of remains is also necessary, to enable Iraqis to establish the fact of death for many purposes, among them remediation for gross violations of human rights, proof of citizenship, inheritance and remarriage.

Human Rights Watch urges that the following measures be taken immediately:

  • Coalition forces should immediately organize protection of gravesites in cooperation with local religious and secular leaders in each region. This effort must include public education as to why ad hoc exhumations are damaging.

  • As an interim measure, individuals should be urged to report grave sites and discovered remains to coalition authorities and local and international organizations, and these groups should prepare to collect and collate this material centrally. Public education should include information on how to locate and photograph gravesites.

    To establish an orderly and effective program that can ensure identification of the dead and preserve evidence of atrocities, Human Rights Watch recommends additionally:

  • Coalition forces should jointly convene experts as soon as possible to survey mass graves, identify the most important sites for protection, and formulate uniform protocols for their exhumation.

  • Gravesites must be documented as soon as possible to create a record of their condition before further damage occurs. This entails mapping, overview photography, and close-up photography of the surface and visible remains to enable experts to assess the condition of the gravesites and whether or not they have been disturbed.
  • A commission on missing persons should be established quickly, with outreach to every region of Iraq, which will receive information on the missing and facilitate the recovery and identification of remains.
  • A legal regime for establishing the death of missing persons must be recognized, so that families and individuals can protect their legal rights and where appropriate make claims for justice and remediation.

  • Programs to establish teams of Iraqis trained in forensic investigation should be created to sustain a process that is likely to span many years.

  • All programs and institutions must take into account religious and cultural sensitivities, and include outreach through community and religious institutions to ensure that humanitarian needs of victim families are met and the dead will be treated with appropriate recognition and dignity.

    To read a Human Rights Watch op-ed on the issue, please see: