Benetech and the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Benetech Analyzes Human Rights Data for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

A Guest Beneblog post by Kristen Cibelli

Our team at the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) has recently concluded a three-year project with Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help clarify Liberia's violent history.

I managed the project in which we analyzed more than 17,000 victim and witness statements collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Liberia and compiled the data into a report entitled "Descriptive Statistics From Statements to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The report is included as an annex to the TRC’s Final Report released on July 1 in Monrovia, Liberia. As a non-profit organization, our work with the TRC and our statistical report was made possible through the support of United States Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and several other donors, which are listed in our report.

The TRC’s final report has been covered extensively in the press. The coverage has focused, however, not on the bulk of content in the report but on the Commission’s controversial recommendation to ban Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from holding future political office. Understandably, this issue has become quite controversial in reports throughout the media, including the blogosphere. But since so many years of work have gone into the TRC’s report, it is also useful to reflect on the broader role of the TRC in Liberia as well as truth commissions around the world. HRDAG has now worked with nine truth commissions over the past 15 years and we have given this question careful consideration. Read our FAQ
on the purpose of truth commissions.

In this blog entry, I talk about how we analyzed the data from the Liberian TRC, some reactions to the TRC’s final report, and offer thoughts looking beyond the current public debate to the broader role and historical value of the TRC’s work.

Office building behind concrete wall topped with barbed wire and palms in distance.

Head office of the TRC in Monrovia, Liberia.

How We Analyzed Data For the Liberian TRC
During our three-year partnership with the TRC, the HRDAG team provided the statistical expertise to transform information from the TRC statements into scientifically defensible, quantitative information. This process was vitally important because it created a historical record of victims and violations based on the thousands of statements. This data helped the Commission determine the proportional responsibility of specific factions and individuals for the most serious crimes during the TRC’s mandate period, 1979 to 2003.

As manager of the project, I worked with our team to apply our deep statistical expertise throughout the many stages of the project. I made numerous visits to the TRC beginning in 2006 when the Commission was inaugurated. I also had the opportunity to live in Liberia for six months last year. This enabled me to work closely with my TRC colleagues who analyzed the statements collected in Liberia and more than 1,100 additional statements collected from diaspora Liberians – Liberians who left the country.

This was a monumental task. Each statement had to be analyzed carefully to identify the “countable units” — violations, victims and perpetrators. That information was then transcribed onto forms - a process known as "coding." Information from the coding forms for each statement was then entered into a specialized database. This effort was enormous and the TRC staff rose to challenge; nearly all of the statements collected in Liberia plus over 1,100 statements collected from diaspora Liberians were coded and entered into a secure database.

Seven office workers at computers.

TRC data entry and coding staff.

To put this accomplishment into perspective, it is helpful to compare it with previous truth commissions. For example, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected about 21,000 statements, just about 1,000 more than the TRC collected from Liberians living inside and outside the country. That may sound comparable – except when one considers that South Africa’s population is nearly fourteen times larger than Liberia’s.

The Liberian TRC was also the first to collect statements from members of the diaspora community – in this case Liberians living in Ghana, Nigeria, the United States and Europe. Many tens of thousands of Liberians fled Liberia’s borders seeking refuge in neighboring countries and in the US and Europe during the war -- By the end of 2003 an estimated 297,000 Liberians were living outside of the country. Not all of the statements from diaspora Liberians, and those living inside the country, could be coded and entered for inclusion in the statistical analysis due to resource constraints.

Stacks of papers on shelves and in bags on floor.

Victim and witness statements collected by the TRC.

Since the scientific accuracy of the data is vital to the credibility of the TRC report, it is also important to consider the care that went into coding. When more than one person is working on coding, it is important to monitor a measurement known as inter-rater reliability (IRR). IRR measures whether different coders, given the same source material, produce the same quantitative output (e.g. the same number of victims and the same number and type of violations). The coding team in Liberia achieved an overall average of 89% agreement on coding exercises throughout their work on TRC statements. This is considered a very high rate of IRR – and ensures that the information entered into the database is more than the individual interpretations of each of the coders.

The staff in the Coding and Database Unit remained dedicated and hardworking in the face of their daunting task and often less then ideal working conditions. You can read a summary of the report and more about our methodology here. I was inspired by the staff’s ongoing commitment to processing as many stories presented to the TRC as possible -- as accurately as possible. They felt that their work was an important service to the people of Liberia and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to work with them on this historic task.

Reaction to the TRC Report

The TRC’s Final Report has provoked heated debate around the world, most of which has not centered on the statistical data. Much of the press coverage of the TRC Final Report -- both national and international -- has focused on the TRC's recommendation regarding President Sirleaf. President Sirleaf was not accused of having committed any direct human rights abuses, and therefore her name does not appear in the database of violations compiled by the TRC. It is extraordinary, however, for a truth commission to make such a determination about a current sitting head of state and this decision could have far-reaching consequences for Liberia.

The TRC has called clearly for prosecution of those the Commission found to be responsible for the most serious crimes. This decision has inspired much debate about whether or not this is the right approach for Liberia and if this is the direction in which Liberians want to go. Clearly this is a choice for Liberians to make. We are scientists. We do not do not judge the data, we provide the expertise to gather quantitative data from the statements and analyze this information.

However, interpreting statistics can be quite complicated. So it is very important to be clear about what the numbers represent and what they don't -- particularly when they are being used to support an argument in a sensitive debate. In that light, I would like to clarify one misunderstanding that has been repeated in the press. When asked what is needed to bring reconciliation to the country, 60% of statement-givers to the TRC mentioned, "forgive and forget" among possible other responses. Some sources in the press have cited this finding but have incorrectly suggested that it represents the views of all Liberians.

To clarify, the statistic does not come from a random population-based survey. Instead, it is drawn from the responses of statement-givers to an open-ended set of supplemental questions included in the TRC's statement form. As an analyst, I want to point out that the statistic represents the views of 17,416 statement-givers who elected to give a statement. But it does not statistically represent the views of 3.4 million Liberians as a whole.

It is, however, interesting to note that the majority of Liberians who gave statements to the TRC embraced forgiveness despite the fact that they were direct victims or witnesses of atrocities and face the greatest challenge in forgiving those responsible for their suffering.

Looking Beyond Immediate Controversy

My hope is that the current controversy surrounding the TRC report does not obscure the larger historical truths - and the voices of more than 18,000 victims and witnesses who gave the statements that we analyzed. Truth commissions help nations understand the impact of past policies – and coup d’états - such as those that occurred in Liberia. We hope that Liberians and others will study the findings carefully and consider the cost of violent regime change on the civilian population. Truth commissions can help direct not just decision makers – but entire nations – toward greater peace and prosperity. Our hope is that the collective experiences of those who engaged with the TRC are not lost in the debate.

For instance, our analysis uncovered important facts about mass human rights violations in Liberia. Forced displacement was the most commonly reported violation during the conflict — comprising about a third of the 163,615 total reported violations. Statements to the TRC documented more than 28,000 killings, the second most commonly reported violation. According to the data, Charles Taylor’s group of combatants, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was responsible for more than three times the number of reported violations as the next closest perpetrator group. Surprisingly, older men were at greater risk for being killed or subject to looting violations than younger men. In contrast, the data suggests that young men, particularly teens 15 to 19 were at the greatest risk for forced recruitment as combatants.

Four smiling kids sitting on a bench.

Liberian children.

By supporting the effective capture, preservation and analysis of statements relating to human rights violations, the TRC has been able to tell a broader truth about Liberia's conflict. An anonymized version of the TRC's data from statements collected in Liberia, and among diaspora Liberians, will be published on the TRC and HRDAG websites. We encourage scholars and other analysts to extend the analysis and compare statistical results from other sources of data with the information reported by the statement-givers.

The findings in the TRC report offer a new perspective on the history of Liberia and provide a context for how and why certain types of violence occurred. Ultimately, this analysis provides a deeper understanding of the possible causes behind the patterns of violence. Before people can be forgiven, we must first understand what they have done. The first step towards reconciliation is the truth.

Busy street scene with building and taxis.

Busy street in downtown Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.


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