Global Development and Peace

voices of the Bridgeport '13

Using Statistics for War Crimes

Haven’t been able to use your mathematics skills to fight for Human Rights? Fret not, a new field of using statistics to combat war crimes is picking pace. 

There was a big flaw in prosecuting war time criminals - it was based only on witness accounts. 

The choreography of a typical human rights investigation goes like this: Researchers interview victims and witnesses and write their report. The local media cover it — if they can. Then those accused dismiss it; you have nothing more than stories, it’s one word against another, the sources are biased, the evidence faked. And it goes away.

But in Milosevic’s trial at the Hague, an American statistician changed this. He confronted Milosevic not only with anecdotal evidence but numerical ones. He showed patters, tested hypotheses and concluded that there was a direct correlation between displacement and massacres with the advance of the Serbian military. 

Ball’s story is of a dedicated Human Rights defender who once picked coffee in El Salvadaor and began developing a statistical database of atrocities committed there. His method were again used in Argentina (“the first modern truth commission) and quickly became a standard practice in human rights circles. 

As the article makes clear:

possessing an ocean of testimony is not the same as knowing the truth. No matter how many cases we learn of, they might not be representative of the whole. A truth commission might be scorned by a particular linguistic or ethnic group, which means its members don’t come forward to speak. Fewer media reports of killings might actually mean fewer killings — or it could mean that journalists were intimidated into silence. Human rights groups might record a decline in violence because budget cuts forced them to fire half their outreach team. Rape might never be disclosed. Video collected by cell phones tells us only what was witnessed by people with cell phones.”

The inspiration for the method came from a method developed to count wildlife. 

It’s a great read, this one. It talks about the challenges and the opportunities of using statistical methods, and its shortcoming. It takes examples from some of the most celebrated to most contentious truth commission. And it ends on a very optimistic note - how crowd-sourcing and technology will change human rights monitoring, possibly even interventions in places where abuses are taking place.

So people with both mathematical skills and a passion for human rights, take heart. Your moment has arrived. You may soon be as important as the persecutors in human rights abuse trials. Read "The Body Counter" in the Foreign Policy magazine here.