Setting the Record Straight

Statistical analysis in the name of human rights


| February 16, 2006


The last ten years have seen an explosion of information resources available to anyone committed to fighting human rights violations. Spearheading this information revolution are organizations like the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). SIPRI and the ISN have paired up in an attempt to prevent genocide before it happens by starting Facts on International Relations and Security Trends (FIRST), an open, searchable database available to anyone with an internet connection. Its goal is to disseminate information about imminent and current conflicts as fast as possible to mobilize intervention when it is needed. The database contains country profiles with information on recent armed conflicts, arms production, and indicators such as health and development statistics.

Looking at genocide after the fact, the HRDAG is using information technology and statistical analysis to retroactively establish the scope of genocide and other crimes against humanity. Ann Harrison reports for Wired News that HRDAG has prepared reports for many countries, including Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, Kosovo, and, most recently, East Timor. Its director, Dr. Patrick Ball, gave seminal testimony at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, correlating the interpolated spikes in civilian deaths to actions by the former Yugoslav president's forces. Harrison reports that the HRDAG's open-source software programs work by taking in first-hand accounts of individual atrocities -- the who, what, where, and when -- and then projecting those trends over the population. The reports prepared by the HRDAG (licensed under a sharing-friendly Creative Commons license) have been used in truth and reconciliation proceedings around the world.

The process is slow, and many want swift justice when former leaders are being prosecuted. Writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jeffrey Donovan examines why it takes so long for former leaders to be tried -- Milosevic's trial, for example, has been going on for four years. The snail's pace, Donovan suggests, is due in large part to the need to exhaust every avenue of due process, as kangaroo courts do little to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation. Part of that process, it now seems, is using information that groups like HRDAG can generate. It's slow going -- Harrison reports that the HRDAG spent three years in East Timor -- but it can provide important, holistic evidence, such as the information Ball introduced at Milosevic's trial. It can take years to compile the data for one report, but when trying a former leader or holding a truth and reconciliation commission, those involved aim to get it right, and they want to have the facts straight.

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Go there too >> Why Is It So Hard To Try Former Leaders?

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