Forensic Science in International Criminal Trials

Forensic science

The use of forensic science in the domestic context of criminal investigation and prosecution has developed considerably over the past century in the UK and similar jurisdictions. In such cases, which are often single crimes committed by a single or small number of perpetrators, forensic evidence may be available which directly links a perpetrator to a scene or a victim. However, in the international context of the investigation and prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the contributions of forensic science are comparatively limited.

Despite the large scale and blatant manner in which war criminals often enact their crimes, it can prove difficult to link these crimes to their perpetrators. One reason for this is that atrocities are often conducted by numerous subordinates under the orders of higher commanders, but it is the higher commanders who are the main target for international prosecutors. In addition, traditional forms of evidence which can be inherently unreliable, such as witness testimony, can prove even more fallible when conflicts are still ongoing and witnesses risk retaliation for providing testimony.

In this sense, forensic science may provide reliable and objective evidence of atrocities. However, whilst its use is regulated by admissibility criteria in the national courts of many jurisdictions, such as the United States and the UK, there are no provisions for its admissibility in the Statutes or Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the forums created to try these serious crimes: the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the ad hoc tribunals such as those examining crimes in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia.

Natalie Mason, a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law at Edge Hill University, argues that the lack of evidentiary guidance at the ICC could lead to inconsistent practices, and the possible admission of unreliable forensic evidence which the judiciary, trained in law rather than science, may not be capable of fully understanding and challenging. Her PhD research seeks to critically assess the potential procedural reform of trials at the ICC by the implementation of an expert panel to determine the admissibility of forensic evidence.