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Business professor applies skills to Guatemalan data
(April 12, 1999)
A retired professor of business has turned his statistical skills to the cause of human rights. Herbert Spirer, emeritus professor of operations and information management in the MBA program at the Stamford campus, is coauthor of a recently published report on state violence in Guatemala.
State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection, by Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer (1999), also published in Spanish, analyzes 37,000 documented political killings and forced disappearances in the Central American country of Guatemala during a 36-year period of armed conflict.
Spirer, whose academic career focused on statistics and information systems, says he came to the field of human rights late in life. "In 1985, I decided that if the analysis of data is so good for America's most successful companies, perhaps it could be used to some public good," he says.
So he began to apply statistical analysis of data to human rights issues. In 1985, he says, it was a novel approach.
Since then, he and his wife Louise, a UConn alumna, have devoted themselves to the cause. Together with retired statistics professor Marilynn Dueker, they sponsor the annual Spirer-Dueker Humanitarian Award, an award that recognizes UConn undergraduates who have performed innovative humanitarian services outside their regular classes.
In 1993, the Spirers wrote a book on Data Analysis for Monitoring Human Rights. Originally in English, it is now also available in French, Russian and Indonesian. Spirer also has consulted on human rights issues for the International Criminal Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the Truth Commissions for Guatemala and Haiti.
The Guatemala report is the culmination of more than four years of data collection and research by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, under the auspices of the International Center for Human Rights Research, a Guatemalan non-governmental organization.
The report documents years of extra-judicial killing in Guatemala under a series of dictators, as selective killings of militants in the 1960s turned into an ever-widening attack on members of the political opposition. By the early 1980s, state forces were indiscriminately murdering civilians in rural areas.
Almost all the reported cases were committed by agents of the Guatemalan state. Although the authors recognize that some abuses were committed by the opposition, they say occasional rights violations by the insurgency cannot be equated with the state's use of sustained and deliberate terror.
Although in some countries there have been attempts to bring the perpetrators of abuses to trial, Spirer says that victims and survivors "often don't want revenge. They want the story of what happened to be told, and told in such a way that it can't be denied."
He says some people have denied that the rural violence ever happened in Guatemala. Others say the country has always had violence and it's just the way things are in that part of the world.
"We can show that it wasn't ordinary," he says. "When we can show 12,000 documented deaths and disappearances in one ruler's regime, that's not background noise."
The volume of information the report presents is staggering. The data include 5,000 cases compiled from interviews with survivors, 10,000 cases from newspapers, and 4,000 from documented sources.
Collecting the data posed formidable obstacles. In many cases, interviews were conducted long after the fact, and the interviewees, speaking in a variety of Mayan dialects, were often unable to pinpoint the exact date of an event.
"The issue is cross checking," says Spirer. "Check, check, check. Look for confirmations, look for conflicts in the data. Was anyone killed more than once, for example?"
He says he and his co-authors did find duplications. For example, among the data there were more than 40 people from one district with the same name, posing the challenge of discovering how many of them were discrete individuals.
But Spirer, who has written about the dangers of basing policy decisions on flawed statistics, has a scrupulous concern for accuracy. In the last nine months of the project, he participated in 15 revisions of the data.
"Every time we found a flaw, we had to rebuild the data set," he says. Even if the discrepancies related to just one or two cases out of several thousands, "we never said let's just ignore it."
Spirer's interest in Guatemala's history goes beyond the numbers. Behind a particular statistic, he says, was a real person who was tortured and killed. "What happened to his family? There's a widow somewhere out there who will never have enough to eat again."
A self-described idealist, Spirer says people working with human rights statistics are concerned with giving dignity to the victims and survivors. "I'm not sure anyone in this field ever really gets over it. You're tabulating the destruction of whole villages."
The process of collecting and analyzing the data was complex and costly but, Spirer says, worth it. The report was one of the information sources for the report, Guatemala, Memory of
Silence, released in February 1999 by the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission.
Spirer sees signs of hope, such as when President Clinton apologized in late February for U.S. support of dictators in Guatemala. "Maybe we've discouraged the U.S. from repeating its role in Guatemala and elsewhere," Spirer says. "If we get 10 or 20 years where tyrants and killers are not supported and trained by the U.S., it will have been worthwhile."
Spirer and his colleagues are now posting their data on the Web. "We hope people who care about the region will do their own investigation."
The report is at http://hrdata.aaas.org