Forensic Anthropologist Completes Residency

November 2, 2007

Dr. William Haglund speaks with students during his residency at Brandeis.

During a four-day residency at Brandeis on October 30-November 2, forensic anthropologist Dr. William Haglund spoke about his work at mass-grave sites and its implications for international justice and offered students insights on a career investigating the aftermath of mass violence and genocide.

The Center's second annual Distinguished Visiting Practitioner, Haglund serves as senior forensic consultant and from 1998 to 2006 was director of the International Forensic Program for Physicians for Human Rights. Previously he was the United Nations' senior forensic advisor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia and prior to that chief medical investigator of the King County Medical Examiner's Office in Seattle, Washington.

Hosted by Brandeis' Anthropology Department, with lead faculty member Elizabeth Ferry, Haglund spoke to an International Criminal Law and Human Rights class on "Criminal Law and Forensic Anthropology" and master's students in Sustainable International Development on "Uncovering the Dead: Truth and Justice After Mass Atrocities." He also held office hours to discuss with students career options in the field of forensic anthropology. In addition, the film The Seeker, Philippé Cornet's documentary exploring Haglund's work directing teams at mass-grave sites in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, screened at Brandeis the week before Haglund's arrival on campus.

Haglund began his keynote address, titled "The Promise of Nuremberg," with a quote from the opening statement of Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials: "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated."

Nuremberg represented the first successful holding of an international court — a precursor for the international courts that have since been established, said Haglund, Those courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, expanded the principle that individuals could be held accountable in the international community, he said.

Yet, he said, "The most difficult crime to prove is genocide." He recounted impediments to international forensic investigations, such as lack of will, absence of local expertise and resources, security concerns, and distrust of investigators by the local populace. Most investigations of human rights abuses are ultimately driven by families of the victims and family advocacy groups, he said.

Haglund detailed the site assessments he's undertaken, including mass graves in Rwanda that contained thousands of bodies. In his investigations, he estimates the number of people killed and collects evidence such as shell casings that would indicate if the killings took place at the site. In one case in Rwanda, he told of discovering in a grave curtains used to blindfold the victims, which he was able to trace to a school to establish the scene of the crime.

At the sites, he said, he looks for evidence that will serve the international court. "You're guided by the needs of the prosecution," he said. "That's what you're there for."

Sometimes if a person's body isn't intact, he said, "All you can do is tell the story of one bone. But if you have the complete skeleton, you can tell the story of the whole individual. That's the story we need to tell."

Haglund said he derives the most satisfaction from dealing with families and getting their loved ones' remains back to them. "I think it's important for human dignity," he said.

The residency was cosponsored by the Psychology Department, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Education Program, the Program for Cultural Production, the American Studies Department, Women's and Gender Studies, the Anthropology Department, and the Sociology Department.

For more information about Haglund's residency at Brandeis, click here.