Nowadays, war often takes place in urban environments.
This can have tragic consequences, as when a recent U.S. air strikes killed at least 22 people in a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
University of London–based architect and author Eyal Weizman is familiar with sloppy mistakes arising from U.S. bombing missions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
In a free event in Vancouver next Thursday (October 15), he will discuss how his pioneering research into forensic architecture is helping Amnesty International and other organizations investigate potential war crimes arising from drone strikes and other acts of state-sponsored violence.
“Most people that die in contemporary wars die in buildings,” Weizman told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office at the University of London. “The majority of those die in their own homes. The nature of contemporary violence is inherently urban and architectural—and, therefore, buildings become evidence.”
Forensic architecture focuses on urban destruction
The Israeli architect became interested in this field while working with the human-rights group B’Tselem on a map of settlements in the West Bank.
He said that in 2002, the organization wanted to determine if it could identify violations of international law “on the drawing board” in how these settlements were being planned and designed.
Out of this work evolved an interest in how architectural tools could document the destruction of urban areas.
In 2010, he spearheaded the creation of a multidisciplinary team to work for a project called Forensic Architecture, which is based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and funded by the European Research Council.
“We refer to our work as counterforensics,” Weizman said. “Why counterforensics? Because forensics is the work of the police—this is how the state looks at citizens.”
His group, on the other hand, helps nongovernmental organizations examine alleged crimes perpetrated by states when they engage in war.
Evidence is gathered not only through examining the destruction of buildings and changes to the landscape but also by compiling images of war scenes captured through social media.
He explained that satellite monitoring in a country like Syria can help researchers reach conclusions about long-term environmental transformations, including those triggered by climatic changes.
It’s also possible to create computerized architectural models to help witnesses to war crimes retrieve repressed memories of severely traumatic events.
“We have developed new tools and techniques and have assembled a lot of existing knowledge under the umbrella of Forensic Architecture,” he said.
Weizman reported on attacks involving white phosphorus
According to Weizman, one of the organization’s successes came in documenting Israel’s use of white phosphorus munitions in its war against Gaza in the winter of 2008–09.
He noted that the Americans had also used white phosphorus in an attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.
The chemical causes deep burns, which can lead to multiple organ failure.
Israel initially maintained that it was using these weapons in accordance with international law, but that claim was challenged by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. According to Weizman, Israel didn’t rely on white phosphorus munitions against Palestinians in a 2014 conflict.
“In fact, it wasn’t used in the most recent attack on Gaza,” he said. “You can effect changes.”
That war broke out shortly after Palestine declared that it had accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. And this had Palestinians eager to document any atrocities.
“Many took photographs and videos of incidents around them,” Weizman said. “Many people risked their lives to provide that evidence and uploaded it online.”
In other conflict zones, it’s not always possible to do this.
Weizman pointed out that in South Waziristan in Pakistan, military officials set up checkpoints to prevent electronic-communications devices from entering that tribal area. He said that because “very, very few images and videos” are taken, the U.S. government was able to initially deny the magnitude of violence caused by its armed unmanned aircraft.
“When it first started, they said people were simply dying from bomb-building accidents,” Weizman said.
Guatemalan genocide probed
Forensic Architecture has also helped gather evidence of genocide committed by the Guatemalan government in a 1982 military campaign against hundreds of Mayan villages.
Then president and army general Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity. However, that ruling was subsequently overturned and a new trial will begin in January.
Weizman said that many buildings in the villages were destroyed, but his team has investigated the contours of these settlements by the distribution of flora, including certain fruit trees.
“You need to understand that warfare is a transformation of the built environment,” he stated. “It is not only kinetic violence directed at bodies; it is what we call environmental violence.”