Forensic Epidemiology

Aerial view of a refugee camp in Chad, near the Sudanese border, in 2004. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Forensic Epidemiology
Mortality Research in the Field and Forums of Contemporary Conflict

A two-day workshop organized by CRASH/MSF and the Centre for Research Architecture/Goldsmiths
With the participation of the Human Rights Project at Bard College
December 7 – 8, 2012


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



Eyal Weizman is the Director of the Centre for Research Architecture (Department of Visual Cultures – Goldsmiths, University of London). Since 2007 he is a founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine. Weizman has been a professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and has also taught at the Bartlett (UCL) in London and the Staedel School in Frankfurt. He lectured, curated and organised conferences in many institutions worldwide. His books include Mengele’s Skull (with Thomas Keenan at Sterenberg Press, 2012), Forensic Architecture (dOCUMENTA13 notebook, 2012), The Least of all Possible Evils (Nottetempo 2009, Verso 2011), Hollow Land (Verso, 2007), A Civilian Occupation (Verso, 2003), the series Territories 1,2 and 3, Yellow Rhythmsand many articles in journals, magazines and edited books. Weizman is a regular contributor and an editorial board member for several journals and magazines including Humanity, Inflexions,and Cabinet here he has edited a special issue on forensics (issue 43, 2011). He has worked with a variety of NGOs worldwide and was member of B’Tselem board of directors. He is currently on the advisory boards of the Institue of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, the Human Rights Project at Bard College in New York, and of other academic and cultural institutions. Weizman is the recipient of the James Stirling Memorial Lecture Prize for 2006-2007, a co-recipient of the 2010 Prince Claus Prize for Architecture (for DAAR) and was invited to deliver the Rusty Bernstein, Paul Hirst, Nelson Mandela, Mansour Armaly and the Edward Said Memorial Lectures amongst others. He studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London and completed his PhD at the London Consortium/Birkbeck College.


Panel 1

Susan Schuppli is a practicing artist and cultural theorist who received her doctorate in 2009. Previously she participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program and completed her MFA at the University of California San Diego. She has taught media in several universities throughout Canada including the Visual Arts Department at the University of Western Ontario where she was an Associate Professor in Studio. Her creative projects have been exhibited at The Kitchen in New York, the Brussels Biennal (Belgium), Artspace (Australia) and most recently at Museum London (Canada). She is on the editorial board of the journals SITE (Stockholm) and Second Nature (Melbourne) and is a member of the Photo-Lexic research group based in Tel Aviv. Parallel to these theoretical and practical inquiries is an ongoing examination of the relationship between architecture and media events. Articles related to this work include: “Forensic Architecture” in Post-Traumatic Urbanism (Architectural Design), “Improvised Explosive Designs” in Ambivalent Architectures (Borderlands), both from 2010; “Material Malfeasance” in Photoworks, 2011; and “Impure Matter” in Savage Objects 2012.

Rony Brauman is a medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins Sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris and is a regular contributor to the quarterly journal Alternatives Internationales.

Michael Spagat  is a Professor of Economics at Royal Holloway College, University of London and consultant on Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Every Casualty programme. He gained his PhD at Harvard University and has held faculty posts at Brown University and the University of Illinois. His papers on armed conflict have been published in Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Peace Research, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and PLoS Medicine. His current research addresses universal patterns in modern war, the Dirty War Index, civilian casualties in the Iraq conflict, and problems in the measurement of war deaths.

After studying communications at CELSA – Paris IV and political science at the Sorbonne- Paris I, Claire Magone spent several years working with Action contre la Faim/Action Against Hunger and Médecins Sans Frontières, primarily in Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Nigeria). Later, she coordinated Sidaction’s internal programs. She joined the CRASH (Centre de réflexion sur l’action et les savoirs humanitaires created by Médecins sans Frontières in 1999) team in 2010.

Francesco Checchi is an epidemiologist with expertise in various aspects of the public health response to armed conflict and natural disasters. In the past he has worked for MSF, Epicentre, the WHO and as a consultant. He is currently a senior lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but moving to Save the Children-UK as their senior humanitarian health adviser. Francesco’s prior work of relevance to this workshop includes several real-time mortality surveys during emergencies (Angola, Thai-Burma border, Darfur, northern Uganda); field research to validate new surveillance- and key informant-based methods; expert panels on mortality in Darfur and the DRC convened by the US government and WHO respectively; and advisory roles in various other studies and initiatives. Francesco is currently finalising a UN-commissioned analysis of mortality during the 2011 Somalia nutritional emergency.


Panel 2

Thomas Keenan teaches media theory, literature, and human rights at Bard College,  where he is associate professor of comparative literature and directs the Human Rights Project.  He is the author of Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics and editor of books on the museum and on the wartime journalism of Paul de Man.With Andras Riedlmayer, he started International Justice Watch (JUSTWATCH-L), an Internet discussion list on war crimes and transitional justice. He has served on the boards of WITNESS and the Soros Documentary Fund.

Patrick Ball is a leading innovator in applying scientific measurement to human rights. He has spent twenty years designing databases and conducting quantitative analysis for truth commissions, non- governmental organizations, international criminal tribunals and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Chad, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kosovo, Liberia, and Perú. Dr. Ball began this work with a human rights NGO in El Salvador in 1991. From 1993-2003, he worked at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the Science and Human Rights Program where he began recruiting colleagues to build the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Dr. Ball has received several awards. In April 2006, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented him with their Pioneer Award. In August 2002, the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association gave him a Special Achievement Award. In June 2004, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) gave Patrick the Eugene Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science and Informatics.

Hamit Dardagan is Co-Director of ORG’s Every Casualty programme. Hamit became ORG’s Consultant on Civilian Casualties in War in 2007. With John Sloboda he now co-directs ORG’s Every Casualty programme. He is co-founder and principal researcher at Iraq Body Count (IBC), where he has taken the lead on the development of IBC’s analytic tools and ouputs. He has written for Counterpunch, and has undertaken research for a number of organisations, including Greenpeace. He has been chair of Kalayaan a human rights campaign for overseas domestic workers in the UK, which led to significant enhancement in their legal rights.

Dr. Filip Reyntjens is Professor of African Law and Politics at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp. He is a full member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences and a board member of several scientific organizations, including the International Third World Legal Studies Association (New York) and the Development Research Institute IVO (Tilburg). Among other assignments, he has been a visiting professor in Paris, Pretoria, Butare (Rwanda), Kinshasa and Mbarara (Uganda) and the vice-rector of the University of Mbuji-Mayi (DRC). For over thirty years, he has specialised in the law and politics of Sub-Sahara Africa, and the Great Lakes Region in particular, on which he has published a several books and hundreds of scholarly articles. His latest book is The Great African War. Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006 (Cambridge University Press 2009). He has acted as an expert witness on the law and politics of Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC in national courts in countries such as Belgium, France, Switzerland, Tanzania, the UK and the US, as well as before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court. He has done consultancy work for several ministries of Foreign Affairs and Development Co-operation and for international NGOs.

Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol is a medical doctor,  specialized in tropical medicine, emergency medicine and epidemiology. In 1989 he went on mission with Médecins Sans Frontières for the first time, and undertook long-term missions in Uganda, Somalia and Thailand. He returned to the Paris headquarters in 1994 as a programs director. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the director of communications, and later as director of operations until May 2000 when he was elected president of the French section of Médecins Sans Frontières. He was re-elected in May 2003 and in May 2006. From 2000 to 2008, he was a member of the International Council of MSF and a member of the Board of MSF USA.


Panel 3

Ayesha Hameed is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Research Architecture. Her PhD was completed at the Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University, where her dissertation “Bricks and Blood. The Dialectical Image of The Black Atlantic in The Colonial Metropolis” was nominated for the Faculty of Graduate Studies Dissertation Prize. A member of the No One Is Illegal Network in Montreal, Hameed’s video and performance work focuses on borders in the context of sans-papiers organizing and migrant subjectivity. She has presented her work at the Banff Centre for the Arts, OBORO Gallery Montreal, Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI), the HTMlles Festival, ISEA and elsewhere. Hameed is a former board member of Fuse Magazine, and her writing has been published in journals like Public and Topia as well as in collections such as PLACE: Location and Belonging in New Media.

Charles Heller originally from Geneva, completed a Masters in International Studies at Goldsmiths University, London, and graduated in Fine Arts from the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Geneva. Over the last few years his work has mainly focused on the politics of migration and the politicity of art and media. In 2005, he released the 40′ video “NEM – NEE” on the social consequences of the new developments in asylum laws in Switzerland, screened at the U.N. in Geneva and human rights festivals. In 2006 he released “Crossroads at the Edge of Worlds”, a 37’ video on Sub-Saharan transit migrants in Morocco produced within the Maghreb Connection project. In 2009 he released the historical inquiry into the Swiss migration regime “Home Sweet Home”. Between 2009 and 2010 he explored the reapropriation of human rights within the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) “information campaigns” in Africa. He is currently producing video and spatial evidence of non-assistance to migrants at sea during NATO’s intervention in Libya. He is working towards a PhD in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths.

Lorenzo Pezzani is a researcher based in London. His work focuses on the spatial politics and visual cultures of migration, human rights and media. After having studied architecture and worked as assistant curator for Manifesta7, he engaged in 2008 in the activities of the Centre for Research Architecture (Goldsmiths, University of London) where he obtained an MA and where he is currently PhD candidate. In 2010 he was a resident at the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency in Bethlehem and he is now a research fellow in the ERC project “Forensic Oceanography” and a contributor to the on-going body of work “Model Court”. His practice-based research projects, moving across diverse disciplines and media, have been presented in exhibitions and talks at, among others, the 4th International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam (2009), Tate Modern (2010) and Chisenhale Gallery (2011) in London, Henie Onstad Art Centre in Oslo (2011) and HEAD in Geneva (2012).

Helen Epstein is an independent consultant and writer specializing in public health in developing countries. She has conducted research on reproductive health and AIDS in Africa for such organizations as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Population Council and Human Rights Watch, and her articles have appeared in the New York Review of Books, Granta Magazine and many other publications. Her research interests include the right to health care in developing countries and the relationship between poverty and health in industrialized countries. In 1984 Epstein received her BA in Physics from the University of California Berkeley, in 1991 she obtained a PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge University, and in 1996 she earned her MSc in Public Health in Developing Countries from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1993 Epstein moved to Uganda in search of an AIDS vaccine. There she taught molecular biology in the medical school at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, until 1994. Although Epstein’s efforts to find a vaccine failed, she was able to witness firsthand the suffering caused by HIV, which became the subject of her book The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing The Fight Against AIDS in Africa. This autobiographical account discusses 15 years of observing both the epidemic and the reactions to it of Western scientists, humanitarian agencies, and the communities most affected by AIDS deaths.

Michael Dillon is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Lancaster, UK and Professor of Politics at Şehir University, Istanbul. He addresses questions of politics, security and war from the perspectives of ‘continental philosophy’. His primary influences are Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida. He has published widely in political and cultural theory as well as in international relations. Among other journals, his essays have appeared in Political Theory; Theory and Event; The South Atlantic Quarterly; Theory Culture and Society; Body and Society; International Political Sociology; Security Dialogue; The Review of International Studies; Alternatives; Millennium; and Political Geography. His most recent book publications include, Foucault on Politics, Security and War (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008, co-editor Andrew Neal), The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live (Routledge, 2009, co-author Julian Reid); and Deconstructing International Politics (Routledge, December 2012). Currently completing a book that construes biopolitics as a response to the problematisation of politics, government and rule posed by political modernity, he explores the impact of the molecular and digital revolutions on the ‘life’ securitized by contemporary biopolitics: Biopolitics of Security in the 21st Century: A Political Analytic of Finitude (Routledge, June 2013). Michael Dillon is also the founding co-editor of, The Journal for Cultural Research (Routledge).


Panel 4

Nabil Ahmed is an artist, writer and musician. He is one of the founders of the sound art collective “Call and Response”. He is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London where his research focuses on violent nature, technoscience and political ecologies of the global south in the Anthropocene. He lives and works in London.

Robert Jan van Pelt has taught at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture since 1987, and held appointments at many institutions of higher education in Europe, Asia and  North America, including the Architectural Association in London, the Technical University in Vienna, the National University of Singapore, the University of Virginia, Clark University, and MIT. He is the recipient of many academic honors, including the National Jewish Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the dignity of “University Professor,” and he serves on various academic boards, including that of the Canadian Task Force for Holocaust Education, Research and Commemoration and the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute. He has published nine books dealing with diverse topics such as the cosmic speculations on the Temple of Solomon, relativism in architectural history, and the construction history of Auschwitz. His recent books include  Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946,  co-authored with Deborah Dwork (Norton, 2009),  The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (Indiana University Press, 2002), and Holocaust: A History,  co-authored with Deborah Dwork (Norton, 2002). In the past years he has worked on creating a critical, English-language edition of the diary of David Koker, a young Dutch victim of the Holocaust who left a remarkable diary of life in the Vught concentration camp. This diary was published as At the Edge of the Abyss (Northwestern University Press, 2012). At this time he is working on a general history of the Lager in Weimar, Nazi, and post-war Germany. An internationally recognized authority on the history of Auschwitz, van Pelt appeared in Errol Morris’s film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr and acted as a senior consultant to the BBC/PBS series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. Van Pelt chaired the team that developed a master plan for the preservation of Auschwitz, and served as an expert witness for the defense in the notorious libel case Irving vs. Penguin and Lipstadt (1998-2001)

Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus is Reader in Holocaust Studies within the Department of religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. His research interests include: Holocaust studies; Genocide studies/anthropology of genocide; History of the Jews in Europe (19th-20th Century); History of Jews in France (19th-20th Century); Economic history of France and Germany; Holocaust memory/politics of memory; Modern history of Alsace and Rebuilding post-war societies. He is the author of four monographies including Pillages sur ordonnances. La confiscation des banques juives en France et leur restitution, 1940-1953 (Paris, Fayard, 2003) and, with Sarah Gensburger Nazi Labor Camps in Paris, (New York, Oxford, berghahn Books, 2012) and Il m’appelait Pikolo. Un compagnon de Primo Levi raconte [He called me Pikolo. A companion of Primo Levi tells his story] (2007). He is the co-editor of the Dictionnaire de la Shoah [Dictionary of the Holocaust] (2009). His current research includes the role of diplomats in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in exhumations of mass graves. He is the co-organisator of the research programme “Corpses of mass violence and genocide”.