Access to DNA Identification after Disaster and Conflict – A Look at International Policy and Ethics

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 24, 2013, a poorly constructed clothing manufacturing building in Bangladesh collapsed with some 3,500 garment workers trapped inside. The eight-story building named Rana Plaza was located on the outskirts of Dhaka. Workers knew the building was unsafe. Just the day before, a local building inspector had ordered workers to evacuate the building. “But on Wednesday, April 24, they were told they would not be paid for the month unless they returned to work. An hour later the building collapsed.”

Initial reports included around 1,040 deaths, but later the number rose to over 1,100. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised families of those who died $1,250 in cash and $19,000 in savings certificates. Unfortunately, months later, many of those families are still waiting for these death benefits. Why? Many have alleged government malfeasance and corruption. Others have blamed the lack of adequate access to DNA identification. In fact, many families are still awaiting the return of the bodies of their loved ones.

The lack of forensic identification technologies, like those associated with the Rana Plaza disaster, was the focus of a recently released study done by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). In February 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced an award of $1.2 million to researchers at CMU. Researchers were tasked with developing ethics and policy recommendations for post-conflict and post-disaster DNA ID practices.  Jay Aronson, associate professor of science, technology, and society at CMU and one of the lead researchers on the project noted that “it has become increasingly clear that identifying missing people and returning their remains to families can be a crucial step in the reconstruction of societies recovering from mass violence or mass disaster.” He also noted that the identification process is heavily tied to legal, economic, and cultural issues-much of what the group’s research focused on.

Aronson and his colleagues recently published their findings in an article in Science. At the outset, researchers at CMU set goals for their study. One was to “identify and examine the challenges of collecting, storing, and using genetic information in low-resource…environments”. They also sought to explain why some disasters received more attention than others when it comes to DNA identification (e.g. post-911 versus Rana Plaza). The group found that although humanitarian organizations recognize the importance of these forensic technologies, the lack of willingness of local governments or the lack of resources to pay for these technologies hinders access to the service. In areas of poverty, researchers likened forensic identification to a luxury. Not only can scientific identification help loved ones begin the healing process, it may help with legal issues such as receiving death benefits, disposing of personal  property, seeking restitution in legal proceedings, or accessing other financial resources.

As such, researchers recommend that formalized international structures be put in place to provide access to DNA identification in cases of conflict or disaster. Without going into detail, the group suggested two ways this may come about. The international structure could come in the form of a single international institution, or it may be found in a decentralized network of agencies. A network of agencies seems most likely to succeed. Humanitarian organizations and certain NGOs likely have the resources and access needed to initiate a collaborative effort to promote access to forensic technologies in low income areas. Whether its people affected by mass disaster like the Rana Plaza workers or mass violence like those in Nepal left without a breadwinner due to the conflict between the government and the Maoist rebels, these individuals deserve this forensic service helping them to heal from their wounds and move forward.

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2 thoughts on “Access to DNA Identification after Disaster and Conflict – A Look at International Policy and Ethics

  1. This is a really interesting area in which DNA technology and other areas of forensics could potentially be very useful. I imagine that resources could be a problem; although NGOs may have resources, aren’t they often torn among many different worthy causes? Is it at the NGO level that weighing the usefulness of providing this technology against the usefulness of providing other goods or services should happen?

  2. Depending on the structure and funding of the NGO may determine who weighs the usefulness of DNA technology versus many other causes. Many NGOs are partially funded by governments who may have a strong interest in providing DNA technology in low income areas and as such, would have the ability to influence the NGOs’ course of action. Other NGOs rely heavily on fundraising and are focused on providing services specific toward their mission. It is possible that some NGOs have goals that are similarly aligned with the idea of providing this technology and would be willing to join the effort.

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