UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — His ankles submerged in mud, Charief Bassiouni waited for the team to begin unearthing the suspected mass grave.
Five years ago, the law professor from DePaul University in Chicago found himself playing the role of a homicide detective in the former Yugoslavia in an effort to gather information and evidence of war crimes for the United Nations.
"It's police work," says Mr. Bassiouni. "A mass grave will tell you a great deal. If people's hands are tied behind their backs, then you know a crime was committed."
Bassiouni, who chaired the investigation that led to today's tribunal at the Hague, is one of a select group of people who have led similar human rights investigations. These men and women, most with legal and forensic-science backgrounds, loan their services to the UN.
While they primarily investigate massacres, rape, and torture, their work sometimes includes investigating other abuses, such as the denial of freedom of movement.
But investigations often face obstacles, says Myriam Dessables of the secretary-general's spokesman's office. UN member states must agree to dispatch investigators.
And even with the Security Council's blessing, an investigative team may still find itself scrounging for resources.
Bassiouni found that out soon after he was selected. He had to raise more than $3 million in donations from governments such as Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United States, as well as private foundations. He also convinced DePaul to lend him an entire floor of a building to store data. At the end of his investigation, he and his 40-member team had produced a 3,500-page report.
So far, the UN has not been able to investigate the recent massacre in Mexico or the wave of killings in Algeria.
"That's hard for people to understand," says Ms. Dessables. "They call and say, 'What is the UN doing, why isn't the UN doing anything?' "
There are no training facilities for investigators. Rather, they are culled from the ranks of the world's leading lawyers, forensic scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and computer scientists.
Sometimes investigators arrive "in country" only to be thwarted at every turn. Several months ago, a UN team went to Congo, formerly Zaire, to investigate whether President Laurent Kabila's troops massacred thousands of Rwandan refugees during last year's seven-month war that ousted the late Mobutu Sese Seko from power. Mr. Kabila has made the investigation nearly impossible.
"Investigating a murder in the jungle of Congo isn't so much different than investigating a mob murder in Manhattan," says Reed Brody, who also led the UN human rights team in El Salvador and Guatemala. "Forensics can tell you age, how the victims were dressed, and the circumstances, but finding out who did it and who ordered it requires political and military intelligence."
A Pakistani military officer with experience in the region will soon join the Congo team. Investigators are also expected to ask the US for satellite photos of the region.
Another component to human rights investigations: the truth commission, set up to examine patterns of abuses.
"We need to ask why church leaders initiated Hutus to kill Tutsis in Rwanda [in 1994]," says Bassiouni. "If all of these things remain unsaid at the end of a conflict, we're going to have a repeat ... and another team will have to go dig up mass graves."