Over the past two decades, forensic DNA profiling has become an important tool in the investigation of human rights abuse and genocide. There is, however, little understanding of the ethical, historical, political, psychosocial, or policy dimensions of this application of genetic technology. The lack of a well-developed body of relevant research, and few regulations to guide the implementation of humanitarian DNA identification projects, means that organizations and individuals must develop their own ad hoc rules and procedures for the identification process. The same problems have arisen in numerous situations, often leading to continued hostility and a lack of closure. This project will contribute to empirical literature on humanitarian DNA identification, and inform the development of concrete policy recommendations. Using theoretical approaches from science and technology studies, anthropology, history, subaltern studies, and studies of trauma and reconciliation, the principal investigator will systematically analyze two major cases: the use of DNA profiling by the International Commission for Missing Persons in the former Yugoslavia to identify the 40,000-plus missing people from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s;and the South African National Prosecuting Authority's efforts to locate and identify the 2000-plus missing people from the apartheid era.
The specific aims are to: 1) describe the historical development of these DNA identification programs;2) examine the ethical and political dimensions of individually identifying victims of human rights abuse;3) investigate the psychosocial dimensions of DNA identification;and 4) analyze the impacts of DNA identification projects at the individual, community, inter-group, and political levels. This project will also explore several major ethical issues that are inextricably linked with these aims, including, for example: the role of private biotechnology companies (and the profit motive) in humanitarian projects;how to determine whether or not DNA testing is in the best interest of a particular community;balancing the evidentiary needs of the legal system with the therapeutic needs of families and communities;and what should be done about the discovery of bodies from previous conflicts that are still symbolically and politically relevant. This research will combine documentary and archival research with oral history interviews and ethnography. Care will be taken to ensure that the voices of ordinary people affected by DNA identification are heard and that their perspectives are incorporated into all final work products. In addition to being published as individual case studies, academic articles, and presentations, this research will become part of the principal investigator's larger project on science and human rights, entitled Accounting for the Dead: Science, Politics, and Identity in the Aftermath of Genocide and Mass Violence.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)
Small Research Grants (R03)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genetics Study Section (ELS)
Program Officer
Mcewen, Jean
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Carnegie-Mellon University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code