Dr. Clyde Snow (1928 - 2014)

Clyde Snow Social Justice Award May 18, 2012

Who Was Clyde Snow?

After his retirement from the Federal Aviation Administration in 1979, Dr. Clyde Snow used his skills as a forensic anthropologist, working tirelessly to reveal the fates of thousands of victims of violent regimes that routinely operated in violation of basic human rights. In 1984, under the sponsorship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dr. Snow traveled to Argentina to help the National Commission of Disappeared Persons.

That same year, Fabiola Galindo’s 27-year-old son told her he was taking a short trip to a nearby town. The Colombian mother of three never imagined that the October day she got his message would mark the beginning of a journey that was to take her through detention centers, police headquarters, jails, human rights organizations, and international courts. Sometime during this "short trip" to a nearby town in 1984 Fabiola's son was detained and disappeared by the Colombian armed forces. After learning of his disappearance, Fabiola dedicated all her time, energy, and resources to finding her son, or at least his remains. In retribution for her tireless questioning, the army planted a package of cocaine in the closet of the single mother’s middle-class home in Medellín, landing her in jail. An Inter-American Human Rights Court resolution declared the Colombian state guilty of Fabiola's son’s detention and subsequent death, but not even this decree resulted in the return of her son’s remains.

It wasn’t until twelve years later, in May of 1996, that Fabiola was finally able to recover the remains of her son, thanks to the pro bono work of Dr. Snow. In recounting her story, Fabiola compares herself to a "sirirí" a small Colombian bird known for insistently harassing much bigger and stronger birds, even hawks. A frequent Colombian saying states: "sooner or later every hawk has to reckon with its sirirí."

Through his work, Dr. Snow found the corpses of thousands of the young women and men, who had been tortured and assassinated by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, in mass graves awaiting identification, proper burial, and justice. Many of the graves Dr. Snow encountered had been excavated with bulldozers, destroying key evidence. The forensic work of Clyde Snow countered the actions of violent regimes that attempted to reduce women, children, and men to nameless faceless victims. He rescued their personal histories and stories, their humanity. In his own words: "You're presented with a puzzle and you have to find answers through the evidence preserved in the skeleton--who they were, how they died, what injuries and diseases they suffered. We're basically trying to construct the life history of the person from the evidence in the skeleton" (Snow cited by Vaughn 2005).

As a result of his investigations, Dr. Snow was asked to testify as an expert witness in the trial of the Junta members who ruled Argentina during the period of military repression. Dr. Snow and his team also helped train local forensic anthropology teams in Chile, Guatemala, and Peru. He wrote, "the hardest thing is to deal with the skeletal remains of children. For example in El Salvador several years ago I worked with an Argentine team investigating a massacre in the village of El Mozote. We found in that village that all of the children had been brought to a single building next to the church and kept there all day while their parents and grandparents were being interrogated and executed. At the end of the day a couple of soldiers just stepped in and mowed them all down with machine pistol fire and a rocket-propelled grenade. Many years later we found the skeletons of 136 children ranging in age from birth to 13 and 14 years old. That's difficult. But you have to always remember when you're working, you can't become too emotionally involved. It affects our objectivity – we have to conduct our investigation in such a way that it should be accepted not only by whichever side you are testifying for, but the other side too" (Snow, 2009).

In 1992 Clyde Snow served in Geneva as a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. In 1998, Dr. Snow testified as an expert witness at the Tribunal in the trial of the Serb defendant charged with the extrajudicial execution of nearly 200 unarmed Croat hospital patients. Dr. Snow found the remains of these patients in a mass grave near Vukovar, Croatia in 1992. This discovery was significant because this mass grave was the first forensically documented incident of "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia, and Dr. Snow's 1998 testimony was the first testimony given by a forensic expert witness before a UN War Crimes Tribunal. Clyde Snow also testified as an expert witness in the 2006 trial of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants for their genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds.

On May 18th, 2012 The University of Oklahoma Women's and Gender Studies Center for Social Justice honored Dr. Snow with the inaugural Clyde Snow Social Justice Award. Dr. Snow's commitment to recovering humanity for thousands of victims of brutal regimes around the world, his generosity in training dozens of forensic anthropologists in human rights investigation, and his humane attitude toward victims, their families, and their communities make him an exceptional member of our University family. Without a doubt, Clyde Snow is the most distinguished forensic anthropologist in the world. He is currently recognized as one of the most renowned anthropologists in history, and one of the most prominent figures in the world of human rights.

So, it is with heavy hearts we mourn the May 16, 2014 passing of Dr. Clyde Snow. Dr. Snow impacted international courts, academia, the field of forensic anthropology, human rights organizations and activists, and families, friends, and communities of victims through his work in applying forensic science to investigations of human rights violations world wide. Hi legacy lives on in the teams he trained, the work they continue, and the justice he restored to families world wide.

It is in his honor that this bi-annual award goes to a person or groups whose work contributes to the re-humanization of victims of human rights abuses in keeping with Dr. Snow’s work. In March of 2016, the Center for Social Justice will award the third Clyde C. Snow Social Justice Award and honor the memory, work, and mission of the exceptional Dr. Clyde Snow.