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Dead body management in armed conflict: paradoxes in trying to do justice to the dead

The world is full of wars, and no war is without its dead. What happens to the bodies of fatal casualties of armed conflict? The winner of the faculty Jongbloed Thesis Prize 2015 is Welmoet Wels (Public International Law). Her thesis Dead body management in armed conflict: paradoxes in trying to do justice to the dead looks at the management of the dead of armed conflict from the perspective of international law.

Welmoet Wels
12 January 2016
Welmoet Wels wins the faculty Jongbloed thesisprize 2015
Leiden University Repository

What rights do fatal casualties have?

The thesis starts with an analysis of how legislation on the war dead developed under international humanitarian law. This legislation is founded on the basic principles of integrity of the dead human body, the importance of identification, the necessity to share information on identity and a respectful burial.  These principles and the fundamental rules arising from them demonstrate the existence of a general duty of care for the dead in times of war. Practical handbooks about clearing (mass) corpses in times of a disaster, including armed conflict, aim at finding a solution that is as respectful as possible, but apart from this establish no clear links to the laws of war. Also international criminal law and international human rights have an uneasy relationship with legislation on the dead established under international humanitarian law, but are also somewhat at odds with each other on the topic of care for the dead. Exhuming bodies of people who have died in war for the benefit of international criminal investigation reduces the dead to corpus delicti for the duration of the criminal proceedings; human rights, however, prescribe that family members are entitled to know what happened to their loved ones, and a swift identification and the return of the body to the family is an essential part of this process. The thesis concludes with the question: what lies behind the basic principles of integrity and respect for the deceased? Is it possible to deduce from the obligations on the management of the war dead and in particular the underlying principles of integrity and respect, that these deceased persons have rights

Recommendations for future research

Further research on the status of the war dead under international law would help to answer these questions and provide more insight into the exact extent of the obligation of care for the deceased under international humanitarian law. Responsibility and accountability for non-observance of these obligations also require further consideration; can non-observance or conscious violation of these regulations be considered a war crime? Subsequent research could help to reduce the tensions and paradoxes that exist with regard to care for the war dead between the various fields of law, and in this way contribute to doing justice to the dead – of armed conflicts. 

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