Nowhere in the world is forensic DNA technology needed more than on the continent of Africa – and nowhere is it less available. That must change.
A recent headline in The New York Times reads, “Rwandan Rebels Raped at Least 179 Women in Congo, Humanitarian Officials Say” This, just one week after Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict for the United Nations announced that, “Wartime rape is no more inevitable, acceptable than mass murder.” While genocide and gender based wartime sexual violence can occur on any continent, no continent suffers such atrocities to the extent that Africa suffers.
The nearly exponential increased use of forensic DNA technology over the past 15 years and across the globe has been, for the most part, in the context of criminal justice applications: prosecutors proving cases with a more definitive piece of evidence, police solving unsolvable crimes, the innocent being freed after wrongful convictions. Changes to and the elimination of statute of limitations, John Doe warrants, cold case units, close match searches, convicted and arrestee databases have all developed in the context of traditional criminal justice applications. But broader “humanitarian” and “human rights” crimes and crises have not reaped the benefits of DNA technology that criminal justice systems throughout the world have experienced. More appropriately put, victims of mass, government sponsored rape, sexual slavery, human trafficking and other atrocities have gone unprotected – unvindicated – by the most powerful crime fighting weapon available.
To be sure there are examples of what is possible in these broader contexts. The International Commission on Missing Persons proved the power of DNA to heal communities and countries through the re-association of families and victims discovered in mass graves – graves often insidiously manipulated to prevent such identification. The DNA testing completed and the database created served to help heal the deep wounds created by family members not knowing the fate of their missing loved ones. And the International community comes together to leverage the power of DNA to identify the dead in times of natural disaster like the 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. But those examples of what we can do also reflect a vision of what we have yet to do.