Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science

Collaborative Specialization

Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction


Quinn, Joanna R.


Forced disappearances are crimes against humanity that occur when individuals disappear, often occurring during a period of political conflict. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the conflict among Irish nationalists and British unionists between 1968 and 1998, 16 people were disappeared by Irish nationalist paramilitary forces. In 1999, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) was established to investigate the disappearances, locate the remains and return the victims to their families.

The ICLVR is not the first institution to conduct forensic human rights investigations into forced disappearances, these investigations have become the standard approach internationally. However, little literature considers how this approach has been disseminated around the world. This dissertation considers the influence of the international norms related to forced disappearances on the success of the ICLVR. It interrogates two research questions: 1) Do international norms exist regarding forced disappearances and if so, what is their specific content? 2) To what extent have the international norms related to forced disappearances contributed to the success of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR)?

This dissertation uses process tracing based on interview and archival data, first, to demonstrate that three international norms related to forced disappearances have developed and diffused, and; second, to trace the development and operations of the ICLVR. The dissertation concludes that the key to the institution’s success is its humanitarian mandate. The ICLVR’s humanitarian mandate represents an intentional rejection of a judicial approach, which is one aspect of the norms related to forced disappearances. However, this conscious rejection of the judicial norm in favour of a humanitarian approach highlights the predominance of the international norms related to forced disappearances.

Summary for Lay Audience

Forced disappearances are a crime against humanity that occurs when a person literally vanishes; in other words, an individual goes missing and no information is provided to their family. Sometimes they are held captive and tortured, other times they are immediately murdered, and their body is disposed of in secret. Families are left, often for many years, wondering what happened to their loves ones and why they disappeared. Frequently, the group who committed the disappearance refuses to acknowledge that it happened, let alone that they were responsible for it. Forced disappearances have occurred all over the world, and, over time, forensic scientists have conducted investigations using state-of-the-art scientific techniques to locate the victims. As these investigations have become more common, ideas about how to conduct them and best practices in their structure, operations, and forensic techniques have been shared across different cases to make these investigations more effective.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, during the civil conflict in Northern Ireland, sixteen individuals were victims of forced disappearances. In 1999, at the end of the conflict, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (ICLVR) was established to investigate the disappearances. An important difference in the operation of the ICLVR has been its sole goal of returning the remains of the disappeared to their families, instead of also trying to collect evidence for criminal trials as is common in other such investigations. The ICLVR has been very successful, with the remains of 13 of 16 victims having been returned to their families to date.

This project considers two aspects of investigations into forced disappearances. First, it examines how forensic investigations into forced disappearances have developed and spread around the world. Second, it assesses how the ICLVR developed and operated in the Northern Irish context specifically, and whether the international ideas and practices about forensic investigations have influenced the ICLVR’s development and operations. This research is important because it provides an in-depth understanding of an institution that successfully investigated forced disappearances. Furthermore, the project outlines key lessons learned for similar institutions elsewhere.