Company investigates human rights abuses

July 21, 2008 8:47:23 AM PDT
A Bay Area company is helping investigate human rights abuses worldwide. Palo Alto based Benetech scientifically tracks down the truth, just when the truth seems impossible to find.

During Guatemala's civil war, the government denied allegations of genocide. Those denials might have stood, even after the discovery of 80 million government documents in an abandoned warehouse. But Benetech was called in. Patrick Ball is its chief scientist and the director of its human rights program.

"A central part of our work is finding big chunks of paper documents of different kinds and then making sense of it. We call it found data, like found art. We put real numbers on human rights atrocities numbers that can be scientifically defended," said Ball.

Scientifically selected samples were scanned into computers, carefully coded.

"Does it talk about arrests or actions that can be taken under surveillance? Does it talk about the discovery of a body? Any of those things would really get our attention," said Ball.

Benetech's work helped lead to the conclusion by the Independent Historical Clarification Commission, that acts of genocide had indeed occurred. The same approach also helped in the investigation of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in the 90's.

Ball's work does not identify individual suspects - it is big picture.

"When a large institution, an army or a government, creates a policy to commit violence, a heck of a lot more people are going to suffer than if one individual perpetrator decides to do a few bad things," said Ball.

Vijaya Tripathi of Benetech's human rights program travels the world helping victims and investigators help themselves.

"Guatemala, Egypt, Lebanon, upcoming trips include Nigeria and Cambodia," said Tripathi.

There, she shares Benetech's Martus program, from the Greek word for witness. It's available free on the company website - it allows people to collect, and protect information.

"It encrypts that data on a local hard drive and it also backs that data automatically to remote secure servers," said Tripathi.

Benetech believes it's important to know the truth about human rights violations, not just to better understand the past, but also, to more accurately assess the future.


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