April 8, 2006
Averting A New Rwanda
Human Rights Watch released yesterday a briefing paper on the planning of the genocide in Rwanda. “The Rwandan Genocide: How It Was Prepared” coincides with the 12th anniversary of the start of the mass killings. It’s a pretty interesting read–especially as we continue to say ‘never again’ while another genocide takes place in Africa.
Sometimes I think we enjoy memorializing human suffering much more than figure out how to put an early warning system in place so that it never happens again. But I digress.
The paper examines how propagandists and government officials defined unarmed Tutsi civilians as enemy combatants and justified targeting them as part of a “self-defense” efforts to mobilize participants to carry out the genocide. The report says:
“Participants were to…obtain information on the presence of the enemy locally, denounce infiltatrators and enemy accomplices, provide information to the armed forces, and counter any enemy action until the armed forces arrived…The plan called for supplying participants with 4,995 firearms and 499,500 bullets. It also mentioned the need for “traditional weapons” (bows, arrows, spears) …and said that people should be encouraged to get these weapons for themselves.”
This should be surprising, but it’s not. Typical double-speak of despots running a country. They sign a peace accord and promise to work with international monitors to bring it to fruition, meanwhile they carry out a contigency plan. In case the agreement aren’t working to their advantage, they can pick up where they left off with the slaughter. It’s amazing how many times this has happened in Africa. We saw it in Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We need better mechanisms in place and a more transparent system to prevent this. Fighting factions must be made to demilitarize and disarm before continuing with any talks. This would offer more protection for civilians.
One more thing about the paper– in laying out the way the extermination was planned prior to the genocide, it would’ve been good to include information on the Rwandan government’s access to population database to facilitate the genocide. This is more of a problem than people realize.
A population data system is a collection of uniform, periodic information about a nation’s population. This system is a tool of the modern state, since it requires modern technology and administrative government offices to process the data. Population data systems can be used for taxation purposes, voter registration and military records, census tabulating for economic or urban planning and for social welfare programs. But there can also be harmful results associated with population statistics.
Edwin Black goes into this in his book “IBM and the Holocaust” where Germany used IBM’s punch-card machines to perform critical tasks in carrying out the extermination of Jews and the German war effort. There are strong correlations here between both tragedies. The Hutus succeeded the Nazis in that they managed to have a higher killing ratio. 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus killed in 100 days—that’s up to 8,000 people a day.
In the past century, we have documented cases of genocide where data and information on the populace were used by the perpetrator to facilitate crimes against humanity. By implementing policies to safeguard sensitive information from reaching the hands of the wrong people, we can help prevent major human rights abuses. There hasn’t been much written on why it’s important to safeguard sensitive information on populations or how to disaggregate this data and encrypt it, especially when it’s the government carrying out war crimes.
For starters there is a good research article written a few years ago. It’s an interesting read on protecting census data of ethnic minorities or targeted groups. Check out: William Seltzer and Margo Anderson. “The Dark Side of Numbers: The Role of Population Data Systems in Human Rights Abuses,” in Social Research (Summer 2001). You can print it off findarticles.com
I hope by learning more about how to safeguard statistics, we can implement better policies for how they can be accessed.