The Body Counter: Meet Patrick Ball, a statistician who’s spent his life lifting the fog of war

March 2, 2012

Foreign Policy:

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.

On March 13, 2002, in a courtroom in The Hague, something different happened. In the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Patrick Ball, an American statistician, presented numbers to support the case that Milosevic had pursued a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. “We find evidence consistent with the hypothesis that Yugoslav forces forced people from their homes, forced Albanian Kosovars from their homes, and killed people,” Ball said.

Ball made this statement under cross-examination by Milosevic’s lawyer, who was, in fact, Milosevic himself. Over two days, the former president of Yugoslavia used his time to rage at Ball: The evidence was fabricated. The organizations that gathered the data were anti-Serb, trying to “galvanize public opinion and raise hostility against the Serbs and the desire to punish them,” Milosevic insisted. War is chaos, he said — how can you be so simplistic as to think that outcomes have a single cause? Why didn’t you examine Serb refugee flows? How can you, a self-described supporter of international law, be considered objective?

These were the usual arguments. They seldom persuade, but their mere existence creates a counterweight to the accusations made by human rights groups: Someone who wants to claim it’s their word against ours now has something to grasp. But Ball offered far more as evidence than interviews with Albanians who had fled their villages. He had obtained records from Kosovo’s borders of who left and when. He had exhumation data and a wealth of information about the displaced. In short, he had numbers.

Traditionally, human rights work has been more akin to investigative reporting, but Ball is the most influential of a handful of people around the world who see that world not in terms of words, but of figures. His specialty is applying quantitative analysis to mountains of anecdotes, finding the correlations that coax out a story that cannot easily be dismissed.

Could the movements of refugees have been random? No, Ball said. He had also plotted killings of Kosovars and found that both phenomena occurred at the same times and in the same places — flight and death, hand in hand. “I remember well the moment of astonishment that I felt when I saw the killing graph for the first time,” Ball replied to Milosevic. “I assumed I had made an error, because the correlation was so close.”

Something had caused both phenomena, and Ball examined three possibilities. First, the surges in killings and flight did not happen during or shortly after NATO bombings. Nor were they consistent with the pattern of attacks by Albanian guerrilla groups. They were consistent, however, with the third hypothesis, that Serb forces conducted a systematic campaign of killing and expulsions.

In testifying, Ball was doing something other human rights workers can only fantasize about: He confronted the accused, presented him with evidence, and watched him being held to account. At that point, Milosevic in his four wars had killed some 125,000 people, more than anyone in Europe since Stalin. But now the Butcher of the Balkans sat in a courtroom that looked rather like a community college classroom, with two Dutch police officers behind him and his cell waiting for him at the end of each day’s session, rhetorical bluster his only available weapon against Ball’s evidence.

Milosevic died before the trial ended. Ball returned to Washington and then went on to Lima to work for Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — one of dozens of truth commissions, tribunals, and investigatory bodies where his methods have changed our understanding of war.

BALL IS 46, STOCKY, SHORT, and bearded, with glasses and reddish-brown hair, which he used to wear in a ponytail. His manner is mostly endearing geek. But he is also an evangelist, a true believer in the need to get history right, to tell the truth about suffering and death. Like all evangelists, he can be impatient with people who do not share his priorities; his difficulty suffering fools (a large group, apparently) does not always help his cause.

He didn’t set out to be a human rights statistician. In the 1980s, before studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Ball got involved in protests against the Reagan administration’s intervention in Central America. He did more than protest — he headed to Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to pick coffee during the Sandinista years. He hated the work and instead built his coffee cooperative a database to do inventory control.

He first applied statistics to human rights in 1991 in El Salvador. The U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador arose at an auspicious moment — the new practice of collecting comprehensive information about human rights abuses coincided with advances in computing that allowed people with ordinary personal computers to organize and use the data. Statisticians had long done work on human rights — people like William Seltzer, the former head of statistics for the United Nations, and Herb Spirer, a professor and mentor to almost everyone in the field today, had helped organizations choose the right unit of analysis, developed ways to rank countries on various indices, and figured out how to measure compliance with international treaties. But the problem of counting and classifying mass testimony was new.

Ball, working for a Salvadoran human rights group, had started producing statistical summaries of the data the group had collected. The truth commission took notice and ended up using Ball’s model. One of its analyses plotted killings by time and military unit. Killings could then be compared with a list of commanders, making it possible to identify the military officers responsible for the most brutality.

“El Salvador was a transformational moment, from cases, even lots of them, to mass evidence,” Ball says. “The Salvadoran commission was the first one to understand that many, many voices could speak together. After that, every commission had to do something along these lines.”

Since the 1984 publication of Nunca Más, the report of Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons — the first modern truth commission — information about the toll of war and political repression has been routinely collected on a massive scale. Truth commissions from Chile to East Timor have gathered testimonies from tens of thousands of people, a process designed to provide dignity to the victims, identify crimes that require justice or restitution, and write the story of what happened — to try, as much as possible, to give closure to the past. Today, technology has speeded up and broadened the reporting process: Crowdsourced mapping tools collect and plot thousands of text messages from people who have witnessed violence. Ordinary people with cell phones take pictures and videos of atrocities that are uploaded and seen around the world…

Read it all.

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