Niccolo: Retro-engineering conflict

Niccolo Figa-Talamanca works specifically on conflict mapping, a practice that tries to tell stories in three dimensions by putting together testimonies from different people during a conflict with the ultimate objective of making it more expensive to choose atrocities as the way to gain or retain power.

Niccolo Figa-Talamanca is the Secretary General of No Peace Without Justice, and works specifically on conflict mapping, a practice that tries to tell stories in three dimensions by putting together testimonies from different people during a conflict. He then uses that information to try to reconstruct how decision makers decide to employ their forces on the ground, with the ultimate objective of making it more expensive to choose atrocities as the way to gain or retain power.

Here he talks about how his organisation reaches beyond sympathy with the victims of conflict, and beyond body counts as conflict data, to gather insights into the decision-making process that result in atrocities. He talks about how to exploit gaps in information and about the responsibility towards the people whose stories you are collecting. He also gives advice on how to stay safe and sane in this line of work, and why you don't need a law degree to document human rights.

Can you explain to us more about conflict mapping?

Everybody has a different story, and by taking all the stories together and plotting them over time and space on a map, we come to understand what was driving the decisions of the fighting forces. When there are wide scale atrocities being committed, we're particularly interested in who made which decisions and when. We basically believe that wide scale crimes do not occur by accident but when there are specific policy decisions made by leaders, when it's convenient for them to kill or attack civilians because it brings them political advantage. By trying to identify which decisions are made by whom, we move away from simply sympathising with the victims and we try to understand not only how, not only who, but also why decisions are made to conduct warfare in violation of the laws of war.

How do you find information?

Most of the useful information comes from people. Whether it's the victims, whether it's the families. Very often when we are on the ground in a country a lot of information also comes from the perpetrators. Once we establish what we're doing and people know what we're doing, very often even fairly senior people come to us and try to tell us their side of the story.

But some key information about the decision making process also comes from people who were physically present. In any case, it is for the most part human-generated information. Now of course there are a lot of videos, a lot of photos, cell-phone cameras. So, there are a lot of different formats of information around. We still find that to make the most sense of other formats, the overall story is still the most important part.

So is it evidence that you're looking for?

What we're looking for initially is information. Information turns into evidence when you do something with it. But the basic step along the way for us is to understand how all the pieces of information fit together. We retro-engineer decision making so that we can get into the heads of the people making the decisions, amd get into the room where the decisions are made. Every bit of information is just information. When you put it all together, then you can make inferences.

Evidence is what we call it when we take it to court but, in a way, what we take to court also depends on what we have. So the key for us is to not attach too much legal value to the information until the end. We tend to stay away from the concept of evidence for as long as possible, so as not to reach conclusions too early. We need more and more information to be able to have better informed analysis and better conclusions.

Have you seen any cases where you have to use the lack of information as an asset?

Sadly in our work, the absence of information is in itself a good indication of violations. There are entire areas of certain countries where there are only very young people and women, and as you count who is missing you know that there is a problem. The absence of information is often deliberate and perpetrators are getting smarter. Sometimes there are deliberate attempts to mask or to hide holes in the data. Fortunately, the sense that there might be negative consequences of extremely violent and notorious atrocities is becoming understood by perpetrators too.

There can also be negative information which has holes in it, due to things you haven't thought of. Sometimes, you may have omitted consulting certain groups or finding out what's missing. So for us, holes in the data are an important element of our process of seeing what we're missing, which is sometimes the most important stuff.

You do a lot of documentation and collection of information, but then you have to prepare certain narratives so that you can speak to certain audiences. What is the process of turning what you have into different narratives?

There are always multiple audiences for any type of work. One of the most important audiences are the people who generate the information in the first place. We see ourselves as a processor of stories and feel we owe those people who provide the stories. The first thing we owe them is our diligence in trying to get the best possible picture of the event. Basically they become creditors of something and what we hope we will provide them with is a shared and accurate history of the country, the period, and the people they're telling us about, the country they're telling us about. Our job is to stitch together stories and make what is their history.

Also the obvious audience for the work that we do are international institutions and policy makers. A lot of our work is focused on accountability for mass violations of the laws of war and of human rights. So a lot of our audience are either tribunals, courts or various types of accountability systems.

In Afghanistan we ran a documentation program, together with an Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which ran over a number of years and covered literally thousands of testimonies from a large number of people across the country. There were hundreds of people working to collect it, put it together, and attempt to understand it. Even today the report has not surfaced, has not been allowed to emerge. So sometimes the audience is not even clear, because the audience for that program were policy makers, but the final report is currently under lock and key.

We also hope that the process itself, in providing a narrative for the people who contribute their stories, acts as a form of protest and enables them to take back part of their life. That is a necessary part of moving on. Even the individual who is telling you the story is, in a way, the audience, if not of the output then at least of the process. That's important too.

You mentioned that access to different mediums has changed significantly of late. Documenting with pen, video, or camera phones, and the ability to have different angles of an issue collected is all new. What else has happened in the last decade or so that has significantly change how you carry out your work?

When you think of an investigation on television, the detectives identify the crime. There might be a body on the street, and they look for witnesses. They knock on doors and ask - "okay, who saw what?" In the case of atrocities, the process is reversed, because everybody is a witness. But what you are trying to understand is - what was the crime?

When I say a crime I don't mean the shooting of 20 people, the digging of a mass grave, the burning of a house, or rape or pillage. The crime, as we understand it, is the conception of the military operation or rebel operation or police operation, that had as an objective the killing or elimination of civilians. So everybody is a witness because everybody has a little bit of the overall picture.

Many things have changed. As well as everybody having a little bit of picture, now in many cases everybody has taken a picture. A lot of the technology that was not available when we started this work, except to professional documenters, is now available to everybody. It used to be that armed groups would have one person dedicated to documenting the campaign. So you would look for the treasure trove, for the person who had documented the campaign and who would normally work for one of the parties to a conflict. Now just about everybody has a phone camera and often quite gruesome footage is collected. Sometimes that is by the perpetrators themselves. The paradox is that the volume of information is less of a problem, but what is difficult of course is contextualising the information. The camera offers you that 60 degrees... that 90 degrees... that 120 degrees.... but it doesn't show you the background. And sometimes the background information is the most important.

Similarly progress has been made in the training and capacity building of human rights activists. The focus is always on detail - getting more information about the victims, about the shooting, about the specific act. Because that's how human rights documenters are trained; they are trained to , document and counter-check to make sure they have their facts right. There's a lot of important information which is under-documented. The location of check points along the road is one example. We need to know where the check points are, who holds them, when they change, who controls each check point, and where it moves to if it's moved. Often these things are not something considered important to document, because they're not human rights violations. But that information is important for us as it helps us understand how all the pieces move together and which groups control which territory.

So there is a much larger volume of information nowadays, sometimes repetitive information, but the angle is still quite narrow. I hope that we can contribute to widening the angle, so that with different perspectives we can tell the story in three dimensions.

Can you think of a case of an unusual use of contextual information? For example, I remember looking at the map of political graffiti in Beirut where, just by looking at symbols, somebody was able to map exactly which group were represented in which part of town...

The mapping exercise is very much is dependent on what you're mapping. But one interesting thing to map is cooperation. For example, in a single armed attack you might have infantry being provided not by the Ministry of Defence, but by the police. So the police will act as infantry. The artillery will be coming from the army, and then the aerial bombardment will be coming from the air force. And those three groups coordinating tells you a lot about the decision making. We're always trying to map the on-the-ground decision making because what counts for us is not the basic crime, but the design of the operations. The interesting part is how you relate geographical and topographical maps of events with maps of decisions. That mapping of decision-making is sometimes done in a very geographical way, overlaying chain-of-command information, order of battle information, with decision-making information. It can be challenging.

What's the importance of emotions in the work you do? Both for the documenters on the ground and the people sitting in offices somewhere far away, going through pictures?

That is one of the first problems that we identified in doing this work. For people who document violations  of human rights from 9 o'clock in the morning to 9 o'clock at night, seven days a week, for months at a time, it's harrowing work.\

It's harrowing work for a number of reasons. One is because by engaging with witnesses and victims, it's necessary to identify with them, so that you can understand their stories better. The best interviewers have an emotional connection with their counterpart, whether their counterparts are perpetrators or victims. That emotional connection is what engages the counterpart and creates an intimate connection with the person that they are getting information from.

But there are extreme emotions in play. In the first wide-scale project that we did, which was in 1999, we found very quickly that this was a potential problem. So for every ten teams of documenters, we had a mobile team that was there for . Even if many of the documenters said - "I don't need it because I'm experienced and I can do this" - our response was – "okay, then we'll train you how to recognise post-traumatic stress in your witnesses." By training in how to recognise post-traumatic stress in the witnesses, it was a way also to train the interviewers how to recognise the same indicators of post-traumatic stress in themselves. That trauma, experienced by people who come into contact with victims or witnesses, is known as secondary trauma.

What we didn't have at the time was insight into the issue of tertiary trauma. This is a level of post-traumatic stress experienced by people who deal exclusively with the information. They may not have even set foot in the country, but through crowd sourcing of analysis or other ways, spend a lot of their time and lot of their emotional connection on the data, and that becomes part of them.

Often that situation is somehow worse. If you have a large-scale documentation project in which you have 100 or 200 people collecting information directly from witnesses, when you go back to camp you have a structural support. But when you are in an office reviewing video, and your community of reviewers is spread across the globe, then you're missing the support structure. It's so important to at least know that other people are going through the same emotions.Tertiary PTS by data review is something that we've not experienced directly, because most of our work is directly in the field, but it's certainly something that's needs to be thought about.

What are for you the most critical ethical questions that you know you will always have to consider?

This is one of our most important priorities. Unfortunately, yes, people try to get information and are driven by that need. Sometimes the fundamental priority of verifying information gets lost along the way. “Priority zero” we call it, which even comes above the first priority, which is the wellbeing of your counterpart. And that is  something that has to permeate the way that data is collected and treated afterwards. It's essential to constantly drum into people that data is people. To the extent that you are collecting peoples' stories, you are responsible for them. You are responsible for the people, to the truth and to their stories. And when you treat data, you have to remember that that data originates from and belongs to the people you've collected it from.

Are there any other concerns?

I think one of the big issues is how to do things safely, which is not always easy in conflict situations. We've developed a fairly sophisticated system of assessing risk, and that is something that human rights defenders sometimes underestimate. It's not just a question of , for which people are not smart enough (though they're getting smarter). It's also a question of assessing your own risk. What are the threats around you? What assets do you have to protect? And what is the likelihood of those threats manifesting themselves? One of the problems is understanding the concept of risk as a function of the likelihood that a threat might be realised and the impact that might cause.

So you have people wearing flak jackets who don't wear seatbelts. Most deaths are caused by car accidents in our conflict situations. It's very easy to wear a seatbelt, and the flak jacket is sometimes useless. But that sort of thinking - about what can happen, how bad will it be, and what can be done to prevent it - is something that needs to constantly be drummed into your staff and the people they interact with. There is no piece of information that is worth the life of the witness or the documenter's life, or anybody's life.

When you look at the speed we can collect, analyse and visualise information nowadays, it's very fast. But has the speed of how that information can influence policy changed at all?

The speed of collection of information has changed a lot - information is now available almost in real-time - but the speed of analysis hasn't changed much. That's partly because analysis depends on completeness, or relative completeness, coherence or relative coherence, and correctness or relative correctness of the information. And the information that emanates, particularly immediately, is often not coherent and not complete, and sometimes also not correct. So, the process of analysis is still a laborious process, especially if it's not simply compiling lists of dead people.

In fact we're still stuck in a paradigm where the main advocacy tool is the number of deaths. And a lot of effort is put into compiling and verifying lists of dead people, which in itself is not a story. We don't know who killed them. We don't know the circumstances. We don't know whether behind them there was a legitimate military target, that they got in the way. We just know that they're dead. It's done with increasing accuracy and with increasing professionalism, but in a way reduces the story to a simple number, which while useful for advocacy, also dehumanises the situation.If you look at Syria for example, we now have officially reached 100,000 dead people. When we had reached 80,000, no policy decisions were made that were any better than when we had reached 50,000. And right now, although we have a 100,000, I don't see the world coming to aid Syria or to change the situation in Syria dramatically, simply because of the number.\

I believe in the power of stories, particularly if the stories are true, and particularly if the stories reflect the shared experiences of people living there. I also believe in the power of people to identify with what happened to other people. I think that is what the analysis and presentation should really focus on. How do you make people share in the horrors and therefore want to do something about it?

So how do you shape a story to provoke such a response?

Our objectives are varied. One of our accountability objectives is to demonstrate to the highest possible level of certainty who bears the greatest responsibility for the atrocities on the ground. So the story that we tell is often the story of the decision makers, and the value they place on whatever military or political objective they have, that they value it more than the lives of the people they are killing or otherwise affecting. And we attempt to influence that decision making process.

We're trying not to make it about the state being responsible, not about what compensation a victim is entitled to, but about which decisions were made by individuals to seek power or legitimacy by committing human rights violations. In a way, we're trying to make it more expensive to choose atrocities as the way to gain or retain power. If on one side power and legitimacy is granted as a result of serious atrocities, we're trying to add an element to the other side of the scale, where the cost of that decision might be loss of legitimacy, loss of power, and potentially jail.

So part of the story reconstruction we do is designed to affect a specific audience, the potential perpetrators. But we also want to reach clarity with a wider audience. In complex situations around conflict, when there are different groups pitted against each other, each group identifies with their own suffering and blames other groups. It's very difficult for people to see the other groups as victims of their own leaders. In a way, when you put together all the stories it's also an opportunity for people to recognise suffering in somebody else's life, and that can also be a very important tool of political change.

The important condition is that you don't make any mistakes. If people find that their story is told incorrectly, then they don't trust any of it. We're talking about people who have lived through those things, so they know the story very well, and the only way they're going to trust somebody else's story is if their own is reflected correctly.

What would be your bullet point advice to people who are entering this field of investigation?

First of all, you don't need a law degree to do documentation. People think - "I'm not a lawyer. I can't do human rights documentation." There is no need for a law degree.

Secondly, it's all about priorities. As long as you remember that the first priority is the well-being of the witness, the second is the integrity of the process, and the third is that the process needs to lead eventually to political change, I think you're okay.

In terms of advice, I would say make sure you are safe. Make sure that the organisation that you're with takes that seriously, because as information becomes more open, as documentation becomes more accessible to a large number of groups, sometimes safety and method can be forgotten along the way. Keep safe, keep the data safe, and keep your witnesses safe.

Recently we've seen situations where a lot of information has being leaked or published by unusual sources. Has that influenced your work?

I think one of the keys to information security is to be able to distinguish different categories. It used to be that you would simply classify everything at the level of the most sensitive information that you have in a database. This all or nothing approach is kind of dangerous, because you're not able to parse the information out and give access to the public information to a large number of people, and keep the private information more private. I think the most important and most simple way of doing things is to have a classification system that allows maximum usability of information which has a lower level classification, without making the whole thing classified because a small part needs to be.

In terms of human rights information, the level of protection that you can give to data is usually fairly limited, particularly if your counterparts are governments or powerful institutions. The way to keep it safe is to keep certain things very safe and to know as a human rights activist that you are being watched. The stronger the attack or the chances of attack, the stronger your confidential information has to be. Being smart about protecting yourself, protecting your sources, also means being able to realise and internalise the fact that your radio transmissions, your telephone calls, and your ordinary e-mails will always be at risk. And then you need to reserve much higher and more robust ways of protecting information for what really needs to be protected.

First published on July 10, 2015