Nowhere in the world is forensic DNA technology more needed than on the continent of Africa—and nowhere is it less available. That must change.
The headline in today’s 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, announced that, “Wartime rape is no more inevitable than, or 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 statutes 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 “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 done and the database created served to 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.
Just a few examples of how DNA could be used in Africa:
Tracking and prosecuting genocidal violence
When a natural disaster like an earthquake occurs anywhere in the world, emergency personnel from across the globe can be on the ground within 24 hours with body sniffing dogs and other equipment to search for survivors and save lives. Now imagine that disaster is yet another allegation of the mass rape of 300 women and children in Congo. Our response should be the immediate presence of aid workers and crime scene experts working with victims to collect potential DNA evidence and the rapid analysis of those samples. In doing so, the response and cry to the rest of the world would be “THIS IS HAPPENING!”—and we can prove it with science. It is time to take rape off the table as a weapon of war and there is no better way to do it than to vigilantly and aggressively leverage the power of DNA quickly and efficiently.
Election related violence in Kenya resulted in the rape of hundreds of women in that country. The Nairobi Women’s Hospital collected samples from many of the victims and many of those samples were sent to Bode Technology Group for DNA testing. Bode however still awaits funding to actually perform the DNA analysis. Once profiles are obtained, DNA testing could support the allegation of rape made by victims as well as help exonerate the innocent from false charges. And this isn’t just about the testing but, as in every case in which forensic DNA is used, this is also about victim empowerment. It is an opportunity for women to understand that they do not stand alone with their stories and their allegations. That like other women and children in other countries, there is proof, scientific proof of their victimization.
The re-association of orphans with surviving family members
Just as the ICMP provided necessary national healing after the conflict in the Balkans, a similar database could be developed from volunteers who lost family members by death and separation during the Rwandan genocide. By comparing the DNA profiles of children left orphaned by the genocide to volunteers looking for family members, Rwanda can take a large step toward healing and reconciliation.