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Turning Tales of Trauma into Hard Data
to Draw Accurate Portrait of Conflict
Stories of terrible pain and suffering make up the raw data that Romesh Silva must dissect, catalogue and statistically analyze to find out who did what to whom in Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war.
Silva, a field consultant for the past two years for the AAAS Science and Human Rights (SHR) program, works with the Human Rights Documentation Coalition (HRDC), a consortium of non-governmental organizations based in Sri Lanka. He coordinates data collection, classification, and quantitative analysis based on thousands of interviews with Sri Lankans who suffered at the hands of both sides during the conflict on the island nation at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.
"The methods of information management and human rights data analysis, which AAAS has developed, are helping to inform discussion about human rights violations in Sri Lanka with the rigor of the scientific method," said Silva, who spoke about his work at a discussion group at AAAS on 19 June.
In the last twenty years, over 65,000 people have died during the Sri Lankan conflict-which began as a clash between the Hindu Tamils - a well-educated minority who had been favored under British colonial rule - and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. (See brief history of conflict.)
Data Analysis Used to Create Record
Underrepresented groups who say they have been maltreated by both the Sri Lankan government and by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also referred to as Tamil Tigers) are concerned at the potential outcome of the peace process.
"People are really worried that the government and LTTE may grant themselves wide-ranging self amnesties for past violations," Silva said.
Against the backdrop of accusations that point to both sides in the conflict, AAAS and the coalition are working to establish a robust statistical record of all past and present human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The HRDC collects stories of human rights violations, and subsequently categorizes the type of violation, and, when possible, identifies the perpetrator and the victim. (See definition of violation category, "Rape," in attached table, for example.) With a common method of categorizing and identifying violations, the six non-governmental organizations in the coalition are building a body of statistical information that can be used to answer the question, "who did what to whom?". Silva notes that this question can be difficult to address in Sri Lanka, given the complex nature of the conflict and its multiple individual and institutional actors. (See discussion of methods AAAS uses to ensure accuracy.)
By using rigorous, quantitative data, AAAS suggests that groups will be able to make more focused and more convincing arguments about the patterns and magnitude of both historical and current human rights abuses. The project aims to augment the human rights monitoring and reporting enterprise in order to positively influencing the Sri Lankan peace process.
Silva has previously served as a Statistical Consultant to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Laos where he provided quantitative analysis for the 2001 Lao National Human Development Report and served as a technical advisor to the Lao Ministry of Finance in the upgrade of its international trade statistics system. He holds a B.Sc (Hons) in Applied Mathematics and B.A. in German Studies as well as a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University.
23 June 2003