Killings/ Mass Atrocities | Supporting Families’ Right to Know Truth

PHR helps families identify and return of their loved ones’ remains.

Supporting the Right to Truth in Nigeria

In July 2002, a PHR forensic team under the leadership of Dr. William Haglund supervised the exhumation from an abandoned cemetery of eight bodies believed to be eight of “Nigeria’s Ogoni Nine”, who had led protests against Shell Oil and the Nigerian government for the rights of the Ogoni people and for the protection their oil-rich lands. Samples from the bodies were matched with blood samples from relatives, the body of Nigerian author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s among them.

The Nigerian dictatorship of Sani Obacha that ordered the deaths of the eight in 1995 instructed that the grave not be marked and the families not be informed of its location. Since the executions of the nine, there had been persistent rumors that the bodies were put in a mass grave and that acid was dumped on them. But PHR’s preliminary examination suggested the men were not tortured, nor their remains desecrated.

Through this exhumation that persisted – despite government deterrence – for at least two years, PHR supported families of the victims, helping them get one step closer to the historical truth, and identification and return of their loved ones’ remains, the first time such an event happened in Nigeria.

Supporting the Right to Truth in Guatemala

In 1954, in a coup managed by the United States, the Guatemalan military overthrew the reformist democratic government of that country. Over decades, soldiers and police killed and tortured tens of thousands of civilians in the name of anti-communism. In 1985, the newly-elected government instituted a policy stating that no investigation would take place into the gross human rights violations of the past.

After the Human Rights Ombudsman reported in 1990 that each year hundreds of extrajudicial executions and disappearances had occurred, with very few of these cases being investigated, PHR and Americas Watch sent a team to Guatemala to survey the medical and scientific procedures that were used in the country’s death investigations. The joint report, “Guatemala: Getting Away with Murder,” found that death investigations could not be conducted properly as doctors were given not allowed to see a body in the field, were not allowed to run standard autopsy practices, and were pressured by police and the government to falsify autopsy reports.

Finally, in 1994, a Truth Commission was established, eventually taking more than 7,000 witnesses, testifying to human rights violations that resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Guatemalans.  And in 2013, Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, indicted former dictator Rios Montt on charges of genocide. Although his conviction was set aside before his death, these developments finally brought to full public view, the crimes documented by PHR and others more than a decade earlier.   

Supporting the Right to Truth in El Salvador

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s devastated the country, with more than 75,000 civilians killed and thousands of children separated from their families.

In 1994, PHR began collaborating with Pro-Búsqueda, a Salvadoran organization that helps to locate missing children, many of them kidnapped by the military during the civil war period, and to reunite separated families. PHR’s work included arranging for DNA testing of Salvadoran families searching for their children, helping Pro-Busqueda locate adoptive parents and/or their children who had reached adulthood in the United States, and providing guidance on legal and psycho-social support.

Families that were separated by war were able to piece back together their broken lives and identities. PHR and partners were able to support the fundamental right to know the truth, the right of parents and siblings to find their children, sisters and brothers, and the right of those children to know their very identities.