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Missing persons and mass graves: towards a legal framework

Melanie Klinkner Dr Melanie Klinkner

Conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Gulf have revealed many stories of human tragedy in recent years, not least the discovery of numerous mass graves in Syria, Iraq and perhaps most notoriously Srebrenica in Bosnia. Bournemouth University research is leading the way in establishing international legal guidelines to ensure these important sites are investigated, managed and processed with appropriate diligence and respect for the benefits of survivors.

Dr Melanie Klinkner is an expert in the field of transitional justice – a wide-reaching term which refers to ways in which countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations. This includes work focusing on missing persons and protecting mass graves, as well as safeguarding the rights of victims of gross human rights violations in advancing knowledge and justice.

She explains: “Transitional justice is closely linked with the Latin American context of military dictatorships in the last decades of the twentieth century. One way to instil fear in the population was to abduct, arrest or detain individuals, often for political motives. But then the authorities would deny all knowledge of the disappearance and whereabouts of the individuals, taking them essentially outside the sphere and protection of the law.

“This causes real anguish and distress to the family members who do not know what happened to their loved ones. So the question is: what is the best way to transition to a democratic society, (re)instate the rule of law and, among other human rights violations, redress enforced disappearances. This is where my research on missing persons, the right to the truth on behalf of survivors and mass graves comes into play.”

Dr Klinkner began her research into this field at BU in autumn 2006, basing her PhD on a better understanding of the interaction between forensic science evidence from mass graves and international criminal law. In May 2009, three days after completing her thesis, she gave birth to twin boys, completing her viva when the boys were just a few months old. Family life took over for a while until she started a full time position at BU in 2010. The flexibility of being able to balance work and home life, while also being able to undertake fellowships at other institutions, such as Oxford University’s Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, is just one of the reasons Dr Klinkner has remained at BU.

Dr Melanie Klinkner

Principal Academic in Law

Transitional justice is closely linked with the Latin American context of military dictatorships in the last decades of the twentieth century.

“Within 18 months of joining as a full-time lecturer, and enjoying the role very much, I progressed to Senior Lecturer, but then dropped to a part time position as my children started pre-school. During this time, Dr Howard Davis and I were awarded a grant from the Nuffield Foundation to conduct empirical legal research into the right to the truth. We have recently published a book about our research findings.”

Throughout her research journey at BU, a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach has been a key feature of her work. Dr Klinkner explains: “If you look at missing person cases or mass graves, you can look at it through the lens of one discipline, but this doesn’t address the issue in its full complexity. In order to fully address the issue of missing persons, I need to be more than a purist; I need to be able to think about it from different perspectives. And that’s when it helps to get your colleagues on board.

“As examples, I work with colleagues from the Faculty of Health & Social Sciences in the area of conflict resolution and from the Faculty of Media & Communication on psychosocial implications of missing persons.”

In addition to working across disciplines, Dr Klinker’s recent Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Leadership Fellowship has provided opportunities to collaborate with non-academic partners. Her project is exploring the idea of creating international guidelines for the protection of and investigation of mass graves. This has enabled her to undertake secondments at the International Commission on Missing Persons, her project partner in The Hague, as well as working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

The key aim of the project is to ensure survivors’ rights to truth and justice can be better safeguarded. But while the subject itself is somewhat sombre, the outcome of the project is ultimately a positive move towards resolution for loved ones who may be seeking information about missing relatives. Dr Klinkner is both practical and philosophical in her approach: “Yes, it’s about the dead but it is very much about the living too. Family members and survivors need to understand where the dead are; who the dead are; how that death occurred; what the wider context was. Through mass grave protection and investigation, we can help ‘unearth’ that information which in turn can lead to repatriation of human remains, allow for commemorative practices but also the pursuit of justice. And for that I am very enthusiastic about my project. I would agree that it’s not a conversation that promotes happiness or a topic that makes for easy reading. You get used to that.”

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