Photo source: Rafto Foundation for Human Rights

Every year since 1987, the Rafto Foundation, an international human rights organization in Bergen, Norway, recognizes human rights defenders and those fighting against oppression by awarding the Rafto Prize to people or organizations most deserving of it.

This year’s Rafto Prize laureate is the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) of San Francisco, California. HRDAG, by inventing and extending scientific methods from other fields, such as mathematical statistics, machine learning, software engineering, and computer science, has uncover large-scale human rights violations that might otherwise have gone undetected. This small group of dedicated experts in computer science, software development, mathematical and applied statistics, and demography – working together with human rights defenders, experts, and organizations globally –, detect patterns of violence and provide statistical estimates in the pursuit of justice and accountability all around the world. By the power of quantitative analysis, they establish scientifically defensible historical records of human rights crimes.

Picture: Founder and Research Director PhD Patrick Ball giving a brief introduction to HRDAG in the Rafto House, 11th November 2021

Amongst others, their approach has enabled courts to bring perpetrators, such as President Slobodan Milošević in the Former Yugoslavia (2002), General José Efraín Ríos in Guatemala (2013), and President Hissène Habré in Chad (2016), to justice. By mapping patterns of clandestine graves in Mexico, mass disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Punjab, deaths during the civil war in Syria, police killings in the US, they have also given closure to affected victims and their families in a broad variety of contexts, leaving no torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, war crime and extrajudicial killing, death uncounted.

“We are deeply honored to be acknowledged at a time when facts and truth matter more than ever. Our work focuses on silences, on the data that isn’t there, and on the voices that have not been heard. With our partners, we strive to move debates about human rights violations toward reasoned discussion with facts and law. Data analysis—including what cannot be documented—is a critical step toward advancing the human rights of those who have suffered most.” – HRDAG.

Picture: PROTECT Executive Scientific Coordinator Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem in talks with HRDAG Operations Coordinator Suzanne Nathans

On 11th November, researchers from PROTECT had the pleasure of partaking in an academic lunch at the Rafto House, during which founder and Research Director PhD Patrick Ball, Executive Director PhD Megan Price, data scientist Tarak Shah and Operations Coordinator Suzanne Nathans of HRDAG gave a short introduction to their work and engaged with everyone sharing professional interests from a wide range of fields, such as mathematics, social science, and law. The last member of the group, statistician Maria Gargiulo were not able to join in person.

Picture: From left to right, Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt (Executive Director, Rafto Foundation), Alida Rita Steigler (Research Assistant and Communications Coordinator, PROTECT), Patrick Ball (Research Director, HRDAG). In the background, Tarak Shah (Data Scientist, HRDAG), Megan Price (Executive Director, HRDAG) and Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem (Executive Scientific Coordinator, PROTECT)

According to PROTECT`s Executive Scientific Coordinator, Dario Mazzola: Getting to know the HRDAG was inspiring for so many reasons, but if I had to pick one that would be the way they join the topicality and social impact of their research with scientific rigor and innovation in methods. I discovered that among the very many projects on which they worked to advance human rights, their study of refugees leaving Kosovo is focused on asylum and can serve as a model for parts of what we do at PROTECT. I was also impressed by the synergies the Rafto Foundation is able to promote, thus making Bergen a crossroad in the worldwide networks of human rights research and activism.

The award ceremony itself took place in the University Aula on 14th November.

“The prize sends a firm message to human rights violators, both state and non-state perpetrators, that violations will not go unnoticed.” – the Rafto Foundation.

We, at PROTECT, wish both HRDAG and Rafto the best of luck with their work and big congratulations to this year`s Rafto Prize laureate!

Read more about the Rafto Prize, the Rafto Foundation, the laureates and their work.