3.4.3 Persons and roles

Before turning to an example of the representation of an act, it is worth distinguishing between a person and a role. It might seem logical that a human rights database should start with a file of victims, a file of perpetrators, etc. However, neither "victim" nor "perpetrator" are concrete entities that exist in the world. A particular person is a victim only by the misfortune that she or he was the victim of a particular violent act. Victimhood is not part of the definition of her or his existence. Being a victim is a role, not an identity, and the database should reflect that distinction. Thus we have a file of people. What a person did, or what was done to a person, is represented in the act link structure.

In addition to being conceptually muddled, separating people into entities by their roles in acts causes a series of confusions in the data. The brief example here represents a problem that could easily be multiplied throughout the human rights world. In South Africa, some people who suffered human rights violations under the apartheid regime joined liberation movements that practiced violent resistance to that regime. In that role, some of them committed human rights violations. Already these people were both victims and perpetrators. Some of them were captured by the authorities and coerced into collaboration -- more victimization. Some of these people then committed additional violations against their former comrades -- more perpetration. Some of these people were then exposed by the liberation movement and tortured or executed as collaborators -- a final victimization. A database that segregated these people according to whether they were victims or perpetrators would separate the key aspects of their enormously complex biographies of human rights events. The database should help us to see patterns in individuals' life histories, not obscure them. In my experience, such complexity is not uncommon, and it is well worth planning for.

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