Forensic Architecture in Radical Philosophy

Radical Philosophy

A strange story unfolded in the shadows of the legal and diplomatic furore that accompanied the release, on 15 September 2009, of Richard Goldstone’s Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which alleged that the Israeli army (and Hamas) committed war crimes, and indeed that Israel might even be guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’.1 On the same day Human Rights Watch (HRW), itself conducting an in-depth analysis of Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza, announced the suspension of its ‘expert on battle damage assessment’, Marc Garlasco. Garlasco, who had joined HRW’s Emergencies Division in 2003 after seven years as an intelligence analyst, ‘battle damage assessment expert’ and ‘targeting specialist’ at the Pentagon – involved in targeting in Kosovo, Serbia and Iraq – had since been employed as the organization’s in-house military and forensic analyst. His investigations focused largely on the examination of material remnants found in sites of destruction, and on analysis of munitions types and military technology. Providing crucial material evidence for HRW’s research on violations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, Burma and Georgia,2 he had, by the time of his suspension, authored and contributed to a series of reports alleging violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) by the Israeli military, in both its Gaza offensive and a string of earlier incidents.3 His research was considered crucial to the Goldstone Report, and is referred to there no fewer than thirty-six times.

About 1,400 people were killed and almost 15,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Gaza attack of December 2008–January 2009 upon which the Goldstone Report was focused.4 There is, unsurprisingly, a correlation between these two figures: according to various international reports a large proportion of the deaths occurred within buildings. Indeed, many individuals and families were killed by the flying debris of shuttered concrete and broken glass of what used to be the walls and ceilings of their homes. One person I called in Gaza during the attack spoke of ‘buildings turning from solids to dust, and of the dust of homes filling the air … people breathing in pulverized building parts’. The built environment became more than just a target or battleground; it was turned into a medium of killing.

When Israel halted its Gaza offensive on 18 January 2009, however, the battle shifted to the legal domain, and, when the dust finally settled, the way it settled became itself evidence. Allegations about the Israeli military’s deliberate destruction of homes and infrastructure were made and contested using geospatial data, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings, and data gathered in on-site investigations. As much of this research was concerned with ‘interrogation’ of building rubble, Garlasco’s specific expertise was central to his contribution. The emphasis on the investigation of ruins meant that forensic analysis of built structures – what I would like to refer to as a ‘forensic architecture’ – came to the forefront of the legal–political disputes that ensued. The facts of destruction were of course evident, and it was abundantly clear who had caused it and in what context. However, the investigation was not overtly political so much as technical, and the main questions of analysis were methodological. The forensics experts explored heaps of rubble in order to gather information with regard to how an event unfolded, and, by extension, to determine whether it was legal or illegal according to the framework of jus in bello – that is, the laws of war, or, as they are otherwise known today, international humanitarian law (IHL). The ferocity of the debate in this instance meant that not only the forensic analyses but also the analysts themselves came under prolonged scrutiny.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 31st, 2010 at 5:52 pm
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