The complex path in the investigation of potentially unlawful deaths

By Gustavo Gonzalez

(Mr. Gonzalez is UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines)

The challenge of preventing unlawful killings is global. We just need to look at the most recent news on media to understand its dimensions and social impact. I have in mind the killing in 2017 of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, at the hands of police. In this case, investigations resulted in the conviction of the responsible police officers. But in most cases, there is no CCTV footage, basic elements of investigations are lacking, and families of victims are left without the truth of what happened to their loved ones, while perpetrators walk free and are not held accountable.

Last week, from 3-7 July, the Government of the Philippines together with the United Nations (UN) under the UN Joint Programme for Human Rights took a significant step to help address this.

In partnership with global and Philippine experts, 26 participants, including representatives of government agencies, senior level prosecutors, security forces, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and civil society came together in a week-long intensive training to discuss how to implement the so-called “Minnesota Protocol” on the investigation of potentially unlawful death (2016) in the country.

Internationally, the Minnesota Protocol is considered to be the gold standard in such investigations. It sets out the relevant legal framework, and elaborates on the conduct of an investigation, including the investigation process, witness interviews and protection, recovery of human remains, identification of dead bodies, types of evidence and sampling, autopsies and the analysis of human remains, as well as several guidelines, annexes and pictorial charts including anatomical sketches.

The firm grounding in the Minnesota Protocol and other international human rights standards was a unique feature of the training. Facilitators and participants applied these to practical exercises, real-life scenarios, and best practices from other countries where the Minnesota Protocol is adapted to the national forensic guidelines.

Last week’s training brought together global experts in this field. Dr. Morris Tidball-Binz, a forensic doctor who currently serves as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings, has conducted fact-finding, technical assessments and capacity-building missions in over 70 counties. In 1987 he was invited by the Presidential Committee on Human Rights of the Philippines, in his capacity as director of the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology, to train Philippine investigators on the recovery, identification and documentation of the remains of the disappeared.

Stephen Cordner, Professor of Forensic Medicine at Monash University with experience globally, has undertaken autopsies in, and/or death investigations from, most jurisdictions of Australia, New Zealand, Timor Leste, Fiji and other Pacific Island nations, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, India, Jamaica, Canada, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Atty. Kingsley Abbot has worked at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia and as a Trial Counsel in the Office of the Prosecutor at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague and has contributed to the development of the Minnesota Protocol as part of the International Commission of Jurists.

Dr. Luis Fondebrider, co-founder and long-term head of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), has worked in 60 countries advising the ICRC and the UN, and has provided advice to truth commissions and international criminal tribunals.

Ms. Leone Scott is a former police officer who has led and contributed to the development of methodologies for victim and survivor interviewing and investigative interviewing, with a particular focus on handling and effective interviewing of vulnerable and at-risk victims and witnesses, including victims of sexual assault and abuse. National experts, including Dr. Raquel Fortun and Dr. Cecilia Lim of the University of the Philippines (UP) Medical College also facilitated sessions.

Global experience shows that the application of the Minnesota Protocol either through enacting legislation or adapting the Protocol into the existing manuals or guidelines at the domestic level has proven to be a useful tool for investigating cases of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances. Its practical approach complements other protocols such as the so-called “Istanbul Protocol” on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

For example, training participants explored what the Minnesota Protocol says about interviewing victims and witnesses and were able to compare this to their everyday work. They also worked in teams to solve resources constraints that may exist when arriving at crime scenes.

The training programme is just one element contributing towards strengthening investigations and addressing impunity. The week-long session also served to go more in-depth on issues related to legal and policy reform, and to explore how to strengthen forensic capacity in the Philippines, which is one of the key priorities of the Department of Justice (DoJ). In this sense, the establishment of a National Forensic Institute, legislation related to mandatory autopsies, adoption of specialized training for Philippine doctors, and further cascading of knowledge about the Minnesota Protocol to be used alongside domestic procedures in all regions of the Philippines are all elements that will definitely strengthen accountability. Cooperation with other countries, including in the Southeast Asia region, will also contribute to exchanges on best practices.

The participation of the academe and civil society organizations (CSOs) in the training together with prosecutors, investigators and medical personnel has been critical. This enhanced a common understanding of the investigation procedures and steps to be taken when investigating potentially unlawful killings, and may also help strengthen coordination among different stakeholders. A trust building investment.

The Minnesota Protocol provides civil society actors with another tool in their advocacy, and a framework for detailed engagement with state actors when helping families of those killed. Through a framework of State obligations, such as the duty to investigate, the Minnesota Protocol outlines the steps of what is required, so that victim family members and CSOs supporting them can ask detailed questions related to what steps have and have not been taken.

As the UN, we are certainly proud of bringing the best knowledge and expertise to address complex development issues, such as justice and accountability. Without them, development risks not being as sustainable as we want.

We remain committed to continuing the work towards the full implementation of the Minnesota Protocol, and appreciate the constructive engagement that has started in this area, which is supported now by nine strong friends of the Philippines–contributors to the UN Joint Programme for Human Rights.