Interview with Eric Stover: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Human Rights Work: Conversation with Eric Stover, human rights activist and writer, 2/16/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Evolution of Human Rights Work

You are suggesting that dealing with these realities that are so Dante-esque requires scientific methodology, focusing on a piece of what's going on and documenting it.

Well, it comes more in the problem-solving area of human rights. By the early 1980s, we were at a point in which there were going to be trials of perpetrators. There were truth commissions being established throughout the world in different countries. In that process of trying to collect the facts about what happened in the past, one of the terrible things of this repression was that there were thousands and thousands of people who had "disappeared," who were killed, tortured, executed, and buried in mass or individual graves. A part of that process [of collecting the facts] is to exhume those bodies and identify them, so the remains can be returned to the families and so that the corpus delicti, the evidence, of the homicide victim can be presented in court.

An overriding issue in Argentina was the disappearance of hundreds of children who were abducted with their parents. Or women who were in secret detention centers who gave birth to children, and the military police took these children away and gave them up for adoption to childless military and civilian couples. So you had some three or four hundred children out there adopted illegally, and then their parents were later killed. And the grandparents of these grandchildren began searching for them. The problem was that seven or eight years had passed, and features on a child had changed, and the only way in court you could prove it was through HLA or DNA testing, taking blood samples from the children, who were located with these families and the grandparents. So, there was a need for science to step in at this time in the evolution of human rights work.

The Argentine case is an interesting one. At that time you were heading the Human Rights Program for the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As the military regime left power, these issues [of documentation] arose. This was about what year?

The military left power after seven years of rule in December 1983.

At that point, people who had been aggrieved by the military, who had suffered these human rights abuses, were looking for justice and some sort of retribution. At that point, you had an insight about how this problem should be approached.

I was working for the AAAS, so I was looking at individual scientists who had been detained in any country -- the Soviet Union, or "disappeared" in Argentina, and so on. The impetus to involve forensic scientists in the search for the disappeared came from the families in Argentina. Because during the seven years of military rule, up to fifteen to twenty thousand people disappeared. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo [organization] was formed; they were mothers looking for their daughters and their sons and their husbands who had disappeared. If there is one thing I've learned, it is that there is no greater force on earth than a mother or father who is looking for a disappeared child. I mean, these women would go out and march every week demanding information.

When the new civilian government of Raúl Alfonsín came into power, he established commission to investigate what had happened to the disappeared and he also started trials of the nine military junta leaders. The grandmothers of the Plazo de Mayo who were looking for their disappeared children, or grandchildren, actually came to visit me in Washington D.C. They had one simple question and that was: Did I know of any way in which science or DNA analysis or paternity testing could be used to locate these children? At the same time, President Alfonsín's commission, as well as local judges had begun exhuming the skeletons of the disappeared in an unprofessional way. They were digging up the remains, putting them into piles by the graves. It was really an extension of the torture that many of these people had suffered, [a torture] to the families. And so they needed to have an orderly scientific process to carry out this operation. So I was asked by both the grandmothers, and by the Alfonsín government, to come in and to train a team to carry out the exhumations in a proper fashion.

And where did you go to find the expertise to deal with these problems? To the universities?

Forensics was a new area to me entirely. I simply called the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, which is based in Colorado Springs, and I said, "Who do I need?" They first pointed me to a forensic anthropologist named Clyde Snow. And really with him, it all began. We then put a team together. Usually in these cases, it's a multidisciplinary investigation. You need a pathologist. You need a forensic radiologist, archeologist, anthropologist, odentologist. So a multidisciplinary team was put together to train a team in Argentina.

And the insight here is to take scientific knowledge that had evolved out of the departments of anthropology and I guess criminology, and apply them in this area where human rights violations are occurring.

The association of science to the law has a long history. Forensic comes from the word forum, where you present in a forum science, discussion. And so by bringing scientists into the courtroom, you are adding a new dimension to any sort of investigation because the scientists are going to gather the physical objective evidence. While witnesses may forget things or change their mind on the stand, the scientific evidence is one that shouldn't forget. It is only the error in interpretation by forensic scientists, who may make mistakes. When you look at why in the United States we were able to bring this team together, it really goes back to a very odd fellow, and that is Richard Nixon, to whom the growth of the forensic sciences in the United States owes a great deal.

Also,known for his commitment to human rights.

Yes, really known for his "commitment to human rights"! In the sixties, Nixon began his war on crime. Part of that was beefing up forensic labs around the United States. So a lot of these new forensic labs started drawing on university professors to become involved in forensic work domestically. As I say in talks in Argentina and elsewhere, the reason I have been able to bring this high quality forensic expertise to you is nothing we take in pride in. It's because we live in a very violent country and we've needed to develop the forensic sciences to respond to that violence. So, the opportunity here was to take these skills and apply them not just to individual cases -- homicide in some county in Texas or a flood that kills people in some other part of the country -- but to apply it to a large social problem or a human rights issue like the disappeared.

Argentina was where this process of applying science to human rights began. But then what followed was a series of different countries where you and these teams were involved in demonstrating that human rights violations had been committed, and you became part of the process to seek justice. Guatemala, Iraq, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, up until today. Why and by whom are these crimes committed in this era that we are now living through? Is this to be expected? Or are we witnessing some sort of fundamental breakdown of norms?

To stick with the topic of the disappearance: "disappearing" people has a history. Throughout history people have been kidnapped and disappeared. But when a regime, a repressive regime, wants to make someone disappear, they do it for specific purposes. The night-and-fog decrees that were issued in 1941 - 1942 by Hitler were very good examples, to go back in history. The Nazi troops were encountering stiff resistance in the occupied countries, and in particular in France. They didn't want to go into these areas and just execute resistant fighters, because then you would have created martyrs and you would have created an even greater resistance. So they kidnapped suspected resistance fighters and took them to German soil, off away where they were then put into camps and later executed. So you didn't create martyrs. No one knew what had happened to them. They just disappeared.

A political terror.

A political terror. And what happened in Argentina was that the military and police set up some 360 secret detention centers. They were trying to break the back of two very well-organized urban guerilla movements. They also wanted to erase communism or even liberalism within the country. The best way of doing that was not filling your prisons up with political prisoners, because then you had Amnesty International sending letters saying, "Why don't you release these prisoners?" and causing trouble. The way to do it was simply to abduct people at night, take them away to these secret centers, get the information from them under torture, and then make them disappear, which means executing them and burying them in unmarked graves in cemeteries with no names or in mass graves on military encampments and facilities.

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