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Forensic science expert seeks justice for war crimes, protection of human rights

Meet Professor Michael Pollanen, president of the World Congress of the International Association of Forensic Sciences

A ’forensic diplomat’ is one way to describe Michael Pollanen, the new president of the World Congress of the International Association of Forensic Sciences. The U of T professor is passionate about advancing forensic science to get justice for war crimes and protect human rights around the world. 

Pollanen, along with his colleagues in U of T’s Centre for Forensic Medicine, is equal parts doctor and detective. And he’s using his new position on the world stage to help low-income and middle-income countries improve how they conduct autopsies, examine trace evidence, identify human remains and establish medical evidence of rape. 

“I’d like to help countries, particularly in the Global South, develop postgraduate education and research capacity that will promote and protect human rights,” says Pollanen, who is also Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist. “In the aftermath of terrorism, wars or domestic conflict, forensic science is a tool for truth seeking and often essential to documenting and protecting human rights.”

Particularly when war or terrorism lead to mass killings, forensic scientists can play a crucial role in establishing the kind of evidence that brings culprits to justice, he says. 

“The various parties to a conflict will have different views about what’s happened. Often those views are guided by ideology, belief or their understanding of the evidence,” says Pollanen, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathobiology. “But forensic scientists deal with observations and measurable facts. We get down to the truth of what’s happened. You have no possibility of justice until you know what’s happened to people.”

For example, matching missing people with the remains in mass graves requires scientific tools, such as dental comparisons, fingerprints, scars, tattoos, evidence of surgeries, possibly even DNA comparisons. And forensic experts can establish whether rape has been used as a tool of terror or prisoners have been tortured. 

“These questions show how prisoners are treated,” he says. “Documenting them in the living and the dead is powerful – particularly if the state actor has detained them.”

Pollanen became convinced of the need to improve the world’s forensic sophistication on a 2010 trip to Jamaica where he was part of a team of forensic observers after more than 70 people were killed in a government operation to extradite a drug lord. He found a country with a very high crime rate and no public body investigating death. Thanks to his work, U of T is now collaborating with the University of the West Indies to train pathology graduates in forensic science. 

Over the next three years, Pollanen will organize a conference of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, which will take place in Toronto in 2017. He will also travel the world, meeting with forensic communities and convincing universities and governments of the need for better forensic science. 

Heidi Singer is a writer with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.