International structures needed for equitable access to DNA identification after disaster

Sep 12, 2013

The April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory Building in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,130 people were killed, is only the latest in a long line of events that has made plain the plight of the families whose loved ones go missing after conflict and disaster.

In a new paper published in Science, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh ethics, policy and human rights experts argue that international structures are needed to promote more equal access to technologies, ensure their fair and , and provide uniform protections to participants following large-scale conflict and disaster.

"After a conflict or a disaster, if remains are burned, mangled, decayed or comingled, the only way to identify them may be by using DNA, said lead author Alex John London, professor of philosophy in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the university's Center for Ethics and Policy. "In low- and middle-income settings, such technology may not be available, or not available in sufficient capacity to handle the surge in demand associated with a mass casualty event. Not being able to identify a missing loved one can have emotional, social, and that can be most dire for those who are already the most vulnerable."

According to media reports, hundreds of Rana Plaza victims' families still have not received the bodies of their loved ones or the death benefits that accrue for survivors because the government has not been able to formally identify all of the victims. This situation, which has led to demonstrations against the government by families and allegations of corruption and malfeasance, has arisen, in part, because the main forensic laboratory in the country does not have enough capacity to handle so many cases at once.

"Humanitarian organizations and governments increasingly recognize the importance of timely identification of remains and, ideally, their return to families for proper burial. Unfortunately, though, access to the resources and technologies to perform these acts is significantly restricted by the willingness and ability of governmental and non-governmental organizations to pay for them," said co-author Jay Aronson, associate professor of science, technology, and society at CMU and director of the university's Center for Human Rights Science. "This means that some victims of conflict and disaster have been identified (e.g., in Bosnia or in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks), while others have not (e.g., in Rwanda or Haiti). The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami illustrates the inequities: international efforts to identify the remains of victims were undertaken in Thailand, where there was a high density of Western tourists, but not in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or other affected areas."

According to co-author Lisa S. Parker, associate professor of human genetics at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health and director of Pitt's Master of Arts in Bioethics Program, "Because confirmation of death is tied to social, legal, and economic rights, we argue that there should be a mechanism to extend access to forensic identification to communities that might not otherwise be able to afford it, or whose capacity to carry it out might be overwhelmed after a disaster."

The authors advocate creating international structures, which could take many forms ranging from a single international institution to a decentralized network of agencies, to promote more equitable access to forensic identification. They outline four main reasons that international structures are needed. First, such structures would address humanitarian and human rights goals by granting access to forensic identification technology on terms other than the ability to pay. Second, the structures would quickly and efficiently implement standardized procedures and have capacity to cope with a sharp increase in demand.

Third, international structures are needed to prevent material and information gathered from being used for any purpose not directly related to identifying the missing. Expanding access to forensic identification will not advance humanitarian and social goals unless the participants are confident that those carrying out the identification process have the mandate and the authority to protect their rights and welfare.

And finally, to ensure that forensic identification advances goals, international structures must have explicit mechanisms to facilitate using identification information as evidence in legal proceedings against those who are responsible for the death or disappearance of the missing - while ensuring that the privacy of donors is not compromised.

The recommendation to formalize international structures in order to improve DNA identification following conflicts and disasters is one result of the $1.2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to Aronson to analyze ethical and policy problems associated with the identification process.

Explore further: Collecting DNA for human rights: How to help while safeguarding privacy

More information: "DNA Identification after Conflict or Disaster," by A.J. London et al Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Forensic breakthroughs win national recognition

Jun 21, 2013

Flinders-led research into techniques to isolate DNA in illicit drugs and to speed up the identification of disaster victims has been recognised in the National Institute of Forensic Science's (NIFS) annual awards. ...

Authorities covering brushfires too reliant on DNA

Nov 04, 2010

Authorities' reliance on DNA evidence has gone too far and is undermining commonsense approaches to forensic evidence according to Dr. Lyn Turney from Swinburne University of Technology.

Forensic sciences are 'fraught with error'

Apr 22, 2013

A target article recently published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (JARMAC) reviews various high-profile false convictions. It provides an overview of classic psychological research on expectancy an ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.