Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group Publishes 2010 Analysis of Human Rights Violations in Five Countries

Analysis of Uncovered Government Data from Guatemala and Chad Clarifies History and Supports Criminal Prosecutions

By Ann Harrison

The past year of research by the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) has supported criminal prosecutions and uncovered the truth about political violence in Guatemala, Iran, Colombia, Chad and Liberia. On today’s celebration of the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HRDAG invites the international community to engage scientifically defensible methodologies that illuminate all human rights violations – including those that cannot be directly observed. 2011 will mark the 20th year that HRDAG researchers have analyzed the patterns and magnitude of human rights violations in political conflicts to determine how many of the killed and disappeared have never been accounted for – and who is most responsible.

As the world debates the release of information by Wikileaks, findings by HRDAG analysts based on uncovered data have promoted respect for human rights and raised the cost of crimes against humanity. In 2010, HRDAG analyzed formerly hidden government documents from Guatemala and Chad that provided key evidence needed to hold former national leaders and security forces accountable for human rights violations. Discovered by chance, these police and prison records told the stores of these crimes from the perspective of the perpetrators. They revealed the culpability of powerful people who never expected that these records would ever be exposed to public scrutiny – let alone scientific analysis.

In conflict zones where abuses are often concealed and crimes are forgotten, scientists have the tools to create truthful accounts that challenge impunity. Expert testimony from HRDAG statistician Daniel Guzmán provided critical evidence in the October 2010 conviction of two former police officers for the 1984 disappearance of Guatemalan labor leader Edgar Fernando García. Guzmán’s testimony was based on HRDAG’s analysis of the 31.7 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive which was discovered by chance in 2005. García was one of an estimated 40,000 Guatemalans who disappeared during the country’s 36 years of armed internal conflict. HRDAG developed a methodology to sample the Archive records and secure them with Benetech’s Martus software. HRDAG analysts calculated the percentage of documents known by different police units and supported the prosecution’s argument that high-level officers were involved in García’s disappearance. The guilty verdicts in the García case have established forced disappearance as a crime in Guatemala and prompted government prosecutors to investigate higher ranking officers for their possible role in the case.

Chad and Liberia

A cache of prison records generated by a former state security force in Chad provided data for a 2010 HRDAG report about human rights violations in Chad. HRDAG’s report, shows that former Chadian president Hissène Habré was well informed of the hundreds of prison deaths that occurred during his regime. The files were discovered by Human Rights Watch at the abandoned headquarters of Habré’s security force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). They contained detailed accounts of the interrogations, movements, and deaths of prisoners, as well as information on the internal functioning of the DDS. Representatives from the European Union, the African Union, Chad, and other countries agreed last month to finance Habré’s trial where prosecutors may use HRDAG’s analysis to argue about Habré’s responsibility for the prison deaths. Habré has been accused of killing and systematically torturing thousands of political opponents. This month marks twenty years since prisoners released from Habré’s jails began demanding justice.

In April of 2010, HRDAG published a statistical dataset and accompanying documentation from the testimonies given to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). These data were based on HRDAG’s June 2009 report analyzing 17,000 victim and witness statements collected by the TRC throughout Liberia. The HRDAG report on this testimony showed that former Liberian President Charles Taylor — already on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone — led the Liberian rebel group responsible for the largest number of reported violations during Liberia’s 24 years of civil unrest. The results of this analysis could impact potential TRC recommendations for prosecution, amnesty, reparations or reconciliation in Liberia.

Iran and Colombia

Other analyses carried out by HRDAG this year will help estimate the number of political killings in Iran. The Adburrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) used HRDAG’s Analyzer software to document more than 12,000 people executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution in 1979. HRDAG analysts and its partners collect, protect and secure highly sensitive electronic information. ABF gathered information from Iranian newspapers, victims’ families, and exiled opposition party records detailing more than 25 years of killings and human rights violations. HRDAG is now working with ABF to estimate the total number of victims in Iran who have never been documented, and to understand the patterns of violence during the worst years of state killing.

HRDAG has been working on a similar problem in Colombia. In February 2010, HRDAG released a study analyzing the patterns of killings and disappearances that took place in the Colombian state of Casanare from 1998 to 2007. The study, “To Count the Uncounted: An Estimation of Lethal Violence in Casanare,” calculates the magnitude of these violations and estimates the number of killings and disappearances that were never recorded. The report has helped guide investigations of missing persons across Colombia where data collection efforts are vital to understanding the magnitude and pattern of violence. HRDAG’s analysis was based on information about victims of killings and disappearances provided by fifteen datasets submitted by Colombian government agencies and civil society organizations.

In May 2010, Megan Price and fellow HRDAG statistician Daniel Guzmán published a paper entitled “Comments to the article ‘Is Violence Against Union Members in Colombia Systematic and Targeted?'” which engaged an important debate about the magnitude, patterns and causes of anti-union violence in Colombia. Thousands of Colombian union leaders and members have been killed, disappeared and threatened for decades. The public discussion about union violence intensified in 2010 as countries negotiating free trade agreements with Colombia, including the U.S., explicitly cited union violence as an obstacle to finalizing agreements. Price and Guzmán point out that scientifically unsound conclusions about this violence distorts the truth and can mislead important social, economic and political decisions in Colombia. HRDAG analysts took part in two seminars organized by the United Nations Development Programme to discuss how to best analyze data on union violence.

A Call For More Data and Careful Analysis

The legitimacy of the human rights community is based on presenting uncomfortable facts to those in power. HRDAG will continue to develop quantitative methods to present statistical human rights claims which are transparently, demonstrably, undeniably true. HRDAG analysts will ensure that courts around the world have the most accurate data available to prosecute for crimes against humanity. They will continue to assist NGOs and human rights organizations to accurately interpret quantitative findings that support historical clarification.

Over the past year, HRDAG statisticians have examined other high profile human rights cases. HRDAG reviewed analysis by the unofficial Iraq Body Count (IBC) on civilian casualties in Iraq collected from press reports and administrative records. IBC compared their data to civilian Iraqi deaths documented in the significant acts (SIGACTS) database released by Wikileaks. Based on IBC’s own comparison identifying approximately 15,000 civilian deaths previously undocumented by IBC, 27,000 records only in the IBC database, and 64,000 records documented by both IBC and SIGACTS, HRDAG analysts used the statistical technique of Multiple Systems Estimation to estimate that another 6,000 civilian deaths are likely undocumented by both sources. HRDAG analysts blogged about their examination of this data.

HRDAG supports more extensive sharing of available human rights data. Our local NGO and human rights partners often place themselves at great risk to do this work. HRDAG analysts strive for meticulous objectivity and academic rigor that persuades relevant parties to talk about human rights in ways that impact the political process. HRDAG analysts will continue to discourage analysis that draws conclusions about patterns of violence based on a single data set or observed events which overlook violations that are difficult to document. Inflated or false accounts embolden critics and undermine well-intentioned efforts to prosecute perpetrators. In 2011, HRDAG analysts will continue to analyze large scale human rights violations for official truth commissions, criminal tribunals and United Nations missions. HRDAG analysts believe that those who commit mass human rights violations can be held accountable with scientifically defensible evidence.

Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.