Some of you may have heard me talk about Chris Asplen in my previous entries. Chris is an expert in forensic technologies, particularly DNA, and has consulted with the governments of many countries, testified before numerous state and city legislative bodies, presented at over 100 national and international conferences and appeared on various national and international news and information broadcasts such as CNN and 60 Minutes.
Chris has just emailed me about the work he is now doing in Africa. It is common cause that nowhere in the world is forensic DNA technology more needed than on the continent of Africa – and unfortunately, nowhere is it less available. It is this issue that Chris is trying to change through his non-profit organization called DNA4Africa.
I am seeing Chris again next week where we are both presenting at the 2nd Annual African DNA Forensic conference in Pretoria. Chris would like to talk about our DNA CSI campaign and possibly exploring the use of this campaign on a broader basis for some of the humanitarian issues they address. This is definitely something we can look at it, and it also highlights the fact that DNA is not only used for criminal intelligence but also for DVI – which is Disaster Victim Identification, which was you may recall, high on the agenda at the Interpol Conference last month. Not only that, but the absolutely horrific problem we have in Africa of human trafficking and worse still, trafficking in body parts, is also investigated through the use of DNA.
Chris says that 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 statute 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 “humanitarian” and “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.
Chris has sent me a few examples of how DNA can be used in Africa:
The recent earthquake in Haiti lead to great potential for the trafficking of lost and stolen children. On February 1, 2010, the Spanish government offered the Haitian authorities DNA-Prokids as a tool to help fight against child trafficking, a reliable means of reuniting families separated following the earthquake, and as a means of identifying illegal adoptions. Kits were provided to take DNA samples from 6,000 parents or other family members that had reported a missing child, homeless children found living in the street, as well as children who were relocated to camps for their protection. Onsite training will be provided to the International Red Cross and representatives from UNICEF who will help facilitate the sample collections. The samples will be couriered to The University of North Texas Center for Human Identity (UNTCH) and Granada for rapid DNA analysis and the development of the appropriate databases to facilitate DNA profile comparisons. The goal is to provide reliable genetic evidence for family reunification when possible, prevent illegal adoptions and child trafficking, and help prevent child abuse and exploitation. Given the epidemic nature of human trafficking in Africa, DNA could play a major role in the fight to stem the tide of human trafficking.Body Part Trafficking:
DNA is used to fight the poaching of endangered species harvested for traditional “medicinal” purposes. Thailand’s government uses DNA technology to fight the trafficking of poached Tigers by comparing the DNA of captured tiger carcasses to the location of origin. DNA testing has also been used to track elephant ivory back to its origins in Zambia where officials had previously denied the existence of poaching in that country. But a recent report from the Mozambique Human Rights League studied the problem of human body part trafficking for “medicinal” purposes from Mozambique into South Africa and found examples of murder and abuse that were nothing less than horribly grotesque. DNA testing could prove to be a major deterrent to those dealing in the murder of innocent victims for the collection of body parts 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 in 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 county. 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 to 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 woman and children in other countries, there is proof, scientific proof of their victimization.
The re-association of orphans with surviving family members of the Rwandan Genocide:
Just as the ICMP provided necessary national healing after the conflict in the Balkans, a similar database can 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 towards healing and reconciliation.
What is DNA 4 Africa?
DNA 4 Africa, is a non-profit, multipurpose organization to help Africa maximize the potential of forensic DNA. Joining with other non-profits organizations, governments and private sector partners, DNA 4 Africa will advocate for the broader use of DNA to protect victims from the genocidal violence, government sponsored rape and other atrocities so prevalent in Africa. It will educate governments about the benefits of DNA as well as about the internationally recognized standards – both technical and legal – to ensure the proper and safe use of DNA and DNA databases. It will develop educational programs on the identification preservation and collection of DNA evidence for aid workers, health care workers, police and others “on the ground” in areas of conflict. Finally, DNA 4 Africa will work with charitable foundations, government agencies and private enterprises to raise funds to pay for forensic DNA testing when opportunities arise.
For generations our response to the scourge of genocide and other forms of mass violence and sexual abuse has been, “Never again.” And for generations it has happened again – and again. It doesn’t take an overly active imagination to conceive the horror of a mother listening to the sounds of soldiers raping and killing from house to house and hut to hut, knowing that she and her baby are next. Nor is it a stretch to picture the grotesque horror of a young boy literally carved up for his body parts under the misguided notion that they contain medicinal properties for the highest bidder. As with every other context in which forensic DNA technology is used, DNA is not a magic bullet. It is however an undeniably powerful weapon. Whether or not and how quickly the international community brings this weapon to that fight is a choice we make. The technology is proven and the logistics are doable. Most importantly, the goal is achievable – to leverage the power of DNA to save lives in Africa as we do in so many other places in the world.
It sounds like a great cause, and I think a greater awareness throughout Africa of the potential of this technology, can only but help our mission to create DNA awareness. It may also illustrate to our own government that DNA technology is used to fight for HUMAN RIGHTS throughout the world, as opposed to being an abuse of human rights! Now isn’t that ironic…