Forensic Epidemiology

Forensic Epidemiology:

Mortality Research in the Field and Forums of Contemporary Conflict

Centre for Research Architecture, London
7–8 December 2012

A two-day workshop organized by CRASH / MSF and the Centre for Research Architecture, with the participation of the Human Rights Project at Bard College.

While pathology deals with the individual body, epidemiology is concerned with the statistical measurement and spatial mapping of patterns of public health, disease, and mortality at the level of populations. With the advent of a general culture of crisis response and global health concerns, epidemiological and demographic studies of conflict-related mortality have begun to acquire a forensic dimension. Statistical data is increasingly called upon to play a role at the centre of controversies involving international law and politics.The collection of epidemiological and demographical data by advocacy groups and aid organisations has thus become common practice. But recent debates around conflicts in Sudan, Darfur, the DRC, and Iraq suggest that the more pronounced this quantitative turn has become, the more it is contested — and even lends itself to political and juridical manipulation.

This seminar seeks to examine the relations between, on the one hand, emergent techniques of collecting, analysing and presenting conflict-related mortality data, and on the other, its acquisition of political and juridical meaning in the different forums in which it is presented. The workshop thus considers forensics in its expanded meaning – the etymological root of the term is in the Latin forensis – the art of the forum – as both the making of evidence and its presentation in different forms of gathering — professional, political and juridical – where it is contested and debated.

The workshop brings together a multidisplinary group that includes leading humanitarians, demographers, architects, theorists, historians, and statisticians, to reflect on the relation between the two intertwined sites of forensic operation – the fields and forums of forensic epidemiology.

In fields we include questions concerned with the epistemology of data gathering and interpretation, with the problems and debates around estimation, sampling, observation and tabulations. Some presentations will discuss the role of cartographic, spatial and territorial imaging and analysis in the context of mortality estimation. The presentations and exchanges in this workshop should allow for better understanding of the way war-related mortality and morbidity is designed in various contexts: how the perimeter of victims is designed, i.e. who is potentially entitled to international assistance, what is the rationale behind decisions regarding what is to be measured and calculated, what is to be left outside of calculations, and what is perceived as incalculable. In other words, we will explore what is at stake when different agents, using different methods and following different (political, ethical, legal, scientific) protocols, count and classify dead bodies. The discussion should not be only about the political manipulation of given figures but about the (political) decisions that go into the very making of the figures.

In fields we also include questions concerned with the operational use of epidemiology. In the past decades, large humanitarian organizations have established in-house epidemiological units in order independently to produce the data necessary to steer their missions. At present epidemiology and demographical statistics – such as general and under-5 mortality figures or fatality rates – have become the main dial in the humanitarian dashboard – determining optimal approaches to treatment and evaluating medical needs and priorities. But although these mortality figures are often conceived as a matter of operational knowledge, they almost always form the basis for testimonial claims, clashes with government statistics, and can be used and abused as powerful tools of political advocacy.

In forums we would like to debate the institutional contexts and media reality in which epidemiological information is asked to perform. Similar data takes on different meanings, depending on the political contexts and on the nature of the forums in which they are presented. It is from within the different forums that we need to reflect on how figures operate, what perceptions and world-views they create.

From Somalia (1992) to Bosnia (1992), Kosovo (1999), to Burma (2008), and most recently to Libya (2011) and Syria (2012), military operations have been debated on the stated grounds of preventing or stopping unnecessary and massive human loss of life. These debates establish the ever-shifting moral/political threshold of the legitimate or bearable. The jurisprudence on genocide in Srebrenica and Darfur, for example, with its associated debates and denials, as well as calls for intervention or abstention, were based heavily on mortality figures (body counts in Srebrenica, statistical extrapolations in Darfur) and on the patterns of their occurrence.

Narrowing the focus on issues that can be handled is a necessary step, if action is to be taken, but this form of telescopy may conceal a more comprehensive analysis of the larger picture. The focus of this workshop is thus not simply on methodologies and the best ways to improve them. What we want to discuss, drawing on concrete situations, is both the making and the use of numbers in the shaping of the perception of major crises, the way in which quantitative and statistical assessments links with – or lead to – juridical qualifications and political/military decisions.

Analyzing and highlighting both the intertwined relation between the fields and forums of contemporary forensics, the moral and political economy of human lives that underpins humanitarian calculation of suffering, is crucial if we seek to avert being the passive instruments of the military-humanitarian-complex.

Rony Brauman & Eyal Weizman


  • Nabil Ahmed
  • Patrick Ball
  • Brenna Bhandar
  • Jean Herve Bradol
  • Rony Brauman
  • Francesco Cecchi
  • Hamit Dardagan
  • Michael Dillon
  • Helen Epstein
  • Branwen Gruffydd Jones
  • Ayesha Hameed
  • Charles Heller
  • Thomas Keenan
  • Claire Magone
  • Lorenzo Pezzani
  • Filip Reyntjens
  • Susan Schuppli
  • Mike Spagat
  • Alberto Toscano
  • Robert Jan Van Pelt
  • Fabrice Weissman
  • Eyal Weizman


Eyal Weizman: Introduction
Mike Spagat
Response by Francesco Cecchi and roundtable discussion
Hamit Dardagan
Response by Jean Herve Bradol and open debate
Robert Jan van Pelt
Helen Epstein
Rony Brauman
Claire Magone
Patrick Ball
Filip Reyntjens
Nabil Ahmed
Charles Heller & Lorenzo Pezzani
Response by Michael Dillon and open debate

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