Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) demonstrated in a more than impressive way this week how science and technology can advance the cause of human rights. Using forensic analysis and satellite imagery, they did an excellent job in documenting a war crime -- and the subsequent U.S. supported cover-up -- in Afghanistan, where in the wake of the U.S. led invasion in 2001 hundreds of prisoners of war were killed by a U.S. backed warlord and dumped in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili. Check out this must see video:
The New York Times covered the story in an extensive piece last weekend. PHR has set up its own website, where you can also urge Attorney General Eric Holder to halt the cover-up. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- who supported the project and with whom AIUSA's own Science for Human Rights project has a longstanding partnership -- also provided a detailed analysis of the grave site and its cover-up. Here's a quick summary of the story:
In 2002, PHR investigators discovered the presence of a mass grave site in Dasht-e-Leili, outside of the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. The grave site is reported to contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Taliban prisoners of war. Forensic analysis suggests that most of the prisoners died from suffocation. They reportedly died while inside closed metal shipping containers.
Upon returning to the site in 2008, Stefan Schmitt, Director of PHR's International Forensic Program, noticed that the mass grave might have been tampered with. To gather additional evidence, PHR requested satellite imagery from the area, which showed two sizeable pits, compromising the original area. The satellite imagery obtained by the AAAS indicated that there was earth-moving equipment present on August 5, 2006 along with one of two new pits. Later imagery on October 24, 2007, revealed the second pit in the same location as the earth-moving equipment from August 5.
As we still wait for the president to ensure accountability for past human rights violations of the Bush administration, this is another test of Obama's commitment to human rights. It will be interesting to see if the administration fully investigates the 2001 killings in Afghanistan, at a time when Obama is sending an additional 21,000 more troops to battle the increasing Taliban insurgency. A first response by Obama to PHR's work seems at least promising.
By Christoph Koettl, Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner.