Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Response to the HRW Report and HRW's Reply

by Nimal

The most glaring omission is that there is no indication whatsoever as to how alternative explanations for the observations, or in this case interview data, were looked for or ruled out or even if the researcher/author (Jo Becker) is in any way aware that this is extremely important. If someone with a beard dressed in a police uniform commits a robbery, while it is possible that a bearded policeman did it, nevertheless highly plausible and probable alternative explanations also exist.

Not long ago it was alleged that Iraq possessed huge stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that posed a real and imminent threat to the world; the accusation was based on hearsay, deliberate misinformation and a good dose of wishful thinking all put together and called ‘intelligence.’ Similarly now, the LTTE and its members are being accused of practising Mass Intimidation and Extortion (MEI) that threatens the Tamil Diaspora (and by implication the Western Countries where they live), by a HRW Report that claims to have researched the matter. But what is this ‘research’ worth? (See for the HRW Report, henceforth referred to as the Report.).

Rather strangely one of the informants, Inspector Philip Perry, Metropolitan Police, London, is quoted as saying “...what we end up with is intelligence without solid evidence.” It would seem that, in a way, this matches the tone of the Report: ‘allegations without proper research.’

On March 15 2006, in their publicity article loudly and confidently titled, “Tamil Tigers Extort Diaspora for ‘Final War’  Tamil Families and Businesses in Canada, UK Threatened,” HRW wrote, in summarizing their Report:

“The 45-page report, Funding the ‘Final War’: LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora, details how representatives of the LTTE and pro-LTTE groups use unlawful pressure among Tamil communities in the West to secure financial pledges. People were told that if they did not pay the requested sum, they would not be able to return to Sri Lanka to visit family members. Others were warned that they would be “dealt with” or “taught a lesson.””

These are highly categorical assertions, and with no trace of doubt or caution that would be expected from even the best research. (See: for the article.)

Indeed, both the article’s title and the Report’s title are meant to leave no doubt as to what it is all about and that the whole truth has been uncovered by HRW – a clear, cut and dry case! Given the hyper-suggestive nature of the titles, most people reading the Report, who are unfamiliar with the situation, would most likely not read it with an open and unprejudiced mind to find out if it was so, but more for the juicy details of how and where and when – the what, why and who (which are prior questions) are already explicit in the title as forgone conclusions.

HRW could have, of course, easily chosen a more neutral or less leading title such as for example, “LTTE Accused of Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora”,“Allegations of Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora by the LTTE”, and so on, where all the key words are still present; but where the reader is now, by this kind of title, also invited to ask themselves ‘is it really so?’, ‘to what extent?’, etc. But if HRW had done so, then more effort and care would have been required in presenting the evidence and any possible conclusions; instead HRW seems to have chosen the easy, but research-wise worthless option of a strong title, but with an extremely weak/worthless methodology. (See for the Methodology section.)

The most glaring omission is that there is no indication whatsoever as to how alternative explanations for the observations, or in this case interview data, were looked for or ruled out or even if the researcher/author (Jo Becker) is in any way aware that this is extremely important. If someone with a beard dressed in a police uniform commits a robbery, while it is possible that a bearded policeman did it, nevertheless highly plausible and probable alternative explanations also exist.

Even if the informants were honest and authentic, could there be alternative explanations for their perceptions and beliefs? Could others have been pretending to be LTTE representatives? Given the highly politically charged context, that this was not investigated thoroughly is shocking and reflective of very poor research. In HRW’s reply to the Canadian Tamil Congress, (henceforth HRW-R, See it says “She [Jo Becker] has extensive international and cross-cultural experience,” but that extensive experience seems not to have taken any note of the complex political situation and the various other possibilities and explanations (political and non-political) that might easily be the case.

Relatedly, how was the veracity of the informants ascertained? There is no indication of how this was adequately dealt with in the Report. In HRW-R it is simply asserted that “Their accounts were credible and consistent.” The question though is, why are their accounts considered to be credible? What steps were taken toward ensuring informant authenticity and credibility? Mentioning consistency as a criterion in this case is of little value because the straightforward story-line that LTTE has been extorting money is not very complex and so it would be easy for a false informant to maintain consistency. However, at any rate, did HRW actually try to probe for consistency anyway? It is not mentioned, nor is any awareness of that indicated anywhere in the Report. (Besides, consistency does not necessarily demonstrate credibility, though inconsistency may sometimes possibly indicate falsity). Again, given the highly politically charged context, that informant veracity was not investigated thoroughly enough to mention in the Report is shocking and reflective of very poor research quality.

Data verification, or in this case the need to look for and rule out both misperceptions as well as false informants, is necessary in even qualitative research. ‘Garbage In Garbage Out’ (GIGO) holds whether the research is quantitative or qualitative.

How could a “veteran Human Rights Watch researcher with more than eight years of experience” (see HRW-R), and whereby claims research expertise, not know this? Or perhaps the “veteran Human Rights Watch researcher” just didn’t care. (It may be added that those who dichotomise research as “qualitative rather than quantitative research,” especially by way of making excuses for poor research have not quite thought through those ideas either.)

According to the Report these perpetrators of MEI seem to be quite open and even boastful as to who they are: “The individuals requesting the funds sometimes identified themselves directly as representatives of the LTTE,” (Report, p.26); for example, “They told me, ‘We are from the LTTE; we have come to collect the money,’” (Report p.28), “This is Mr. Prabhakaran’s request. You need to help start the war.”, (Report, p.29) – note especially the part “You need to help start the war.” These sorts of brazen statements would surly raise suspicion in most people’s minds, but not with the author of the Report it would seem.

Does the Report’s author respond with the same kind of credulity to every scam email she receives as well? Even these sorts of unsubtle informant statements - which I find not credible because, for instance, so few Tamils want a return to war that it would not be an effective fundraising ploy - do not seem to have alerted the Report’s author to verify the worth of the interview data.

Apparently, “We [HRW] do not do “population sampling” but rely on individual testimonies taken during in-depth, one-on-one interviews. For this report, witnesses were identified through contacts …” But what are the witnesses/informants if not members of a sample from the wider population? The individuals interviewed, however they were contacted, form a sample; even though it is a bad or non-representative sample, it is still a sample from the population of interest. It seems even the excuse-making reply (HRW-R), has not got things right. I think what HRW-R meant to say (in making excuses and shying from numbers and ‘quantitative’ research), is that they do not do ‘probability sampling.’ (While the words “population” and “probability” do have some letters in common, they certainly do not mean the same thing.)

Now good research that uses in-depth interview data can be very illuminative, and it is often not at all necessary to perform statistical calculations (as say with ‘quantitative’ research), to demonstrate a social reality. Therefore, it is quite satisfactory to collect in-depth interview data in some situations; and indeed sometimes it may be much more appropriate to do so than to collect a vast amount of superficial statistics. But it must be done properly; else it would be worthless if not immoral and, in some contexts, even dangerous.

Just as it is said that ‘There are lies, damn lies and statistics,’ equally, it may be said that ‘There are lies, damn lies and interviews.’

However, that interview data was collected does not mean that it is not necessary to clearly say how many informants were involved in the study, (as HRW-R implies in defending this omission in the Report). A good, conscientious researcher would know and keep an exact and clear record of how many informants were targeted (and why), how many were chosen (and why), how many dropped out or were subsequently not used (and why), and so on. None of this is apparent in the Report and in HRW-R. The best HRW-R comes up with is to say “Human Rights Watch interviewed several dozen members of the Tamil community.” The impression given by the vague word “several” is certainly somewhere upwards of five to most people; thus 12 x 5 = 60 or more interviews appear to be claimed. But how believable is even this claim from the evidence available in the Report?

There are certainly 50+ references in the footnotes that say, “Human Rights Watch interview …” But clearly, some of these refer to the same interview and therefore the actual number is certainly less than 50; and, furthermore, it is not at all always clear as to whether it is the same or a different informant that is being referred to. While there are many entries, such as for example “Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, January 2006” (about 15 of these), there are only one or two with a specific date such as “Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Toronto, Canada, January 22, 2006”; and similarly with the London interviews such as “Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., November 30, 2005,” the rest are not dated, but are referenced such as “Human Rights Watch interview, London, U.K., November 2005.” For example, there are about 22 (London and Toronto) undated references for November 2005; it is highly doubtful if anyone could effectively conduct that many in-depth, one-on-one interviews in one month across both London and Toronto. Some interviews are referenced as telephone interviews such as “Human Rights Watch telephone interview, London, U.K., January 2006,” with the implication that the others such as the above mentioned 22 references were face-to-face.

Therefore, all in all it is very doubtful if “several dozen” amounted to anything near what the word “several” suggests. It is more than likely to be far less! Also, if for example, all the dates had been noted then even if the actual number of informants was not given, at least a reader of the Report could look through and make an estimate and, in addition, gauge a pattern in what each informant individually said.

Why not make these things transparent given the extreme seriousness of the allegations? What has HRW to hide? Would merely giving a specific date put anyone in danger?  Or does it mean carelessness or other? Perhaps there were less than one or two dozen informants and specifying the dates would have given that away?

In the Methodology section of the Report it says, “Because of the significant security risks for Tamils interviewed for this report, the names of most individuals are kept confidential. Some locations and other identifying details are also withheld or changed in order to protect the identity of those who spoke with Human Rights Watch. Some cases reported to Human Rights Watch have been omitted entirely, because it was not possible to describe the reported incidents without putting the individuals involved at risk.” Now, certainly, it would be the right thing to not reveal any “identifying details” if the allegations were true. But would identifying exactly how many informants were interviewed and also who said what in some other way, such as with pseudonyms or code numbers, reveal “identifying details”? And why omit anyone entirely? It is always possible to modify the “identifying details” with a bit of ingenuity.

The author of the Report (Jo Becker), notwithstanding that the GIGO research maxim was ignored, has clearly also attempted to extrapolate and generalise the information obtained from less than several dozen interviews to the whole population of diaspora Tamils (in at least Canada and the UK); for example, the Report refers to “…clear patterns of intimidation and extortion…”, (Report, p. 5). But in making such extrapolations and to begin talking of patterns in the population, it is very necessary to try and get some idea of how representative of the wider population the sample is: for example, for comparison the researcher could have collected quick interview or questionnaire data from a range of others who may not have had the experiences mentioned in the Report or perhaps even conducted a poll – and these things are quite simple and basic. But there is no evidence that this (the validity of generalisability, which is relevant to qualitative research as well), was even considered by the Report’s author.

Besides, even in this Report where one of the central allegations is that of intimidation, it admits “Many of the individuals interviewed for this report … refused to give money, and were subsequently not pressed further for funds. One Toronto man who refused to give said, “If you are scared, they will come and sit, but if they know they won’t get anywhere, they will leave.” Another individual said similarly, “If you are scared, they will push; if you are firm, they will back down.””, (Report, p.32). Does this sound anywhere like the level of intimidation alleged in the Report? Did the author forget that this part was in the Report?

There are also a number of oddities in the Report, for example: “The LTTE maintained computer records to keep track of individuals who contributed, including their addresses and telephone numbers”, (Report, p.14). How does the author know this with such assurance?

“When speaking to Human Rights Watch, Priya became visibly upset. She indicated that one of the reasons why she did not want to give money to the LTTE was because of their practice of recruiting children as soldiers. My brother’s children are in the Vanni. The LTTE is collecting money here and using the money to train children to fight and die with the [Tiger] army. The people who collect the money here are living a very good life and drive a nice car. They don’t seem to care that it is the children there who are forced to fight and die.”, (Report, p. 37). That is, the LTTE are not only extorting and intimidating, while themselves living it up, but are doing so in order to mercilessly and cruelly recruit child soldiers! Two birds with one stone! How believable is this? (Furthermore with all those computer records, would it not be easy to find Priya, seeing that the Report details all her movements and mentions where her relatives are?)

Another two in one: “He told Human Rights Watch that he was reluctant to give for economic reasons and because he had heard from a relative in the LTTE about LTTE human rights abuses, including child recruitment.”, (Report, p.28). And note the little touch that this person also has “a relative in the LTTE.”

Just as the absence of WMD were explained away as that the WMD were well hidden, etc., rather than seen as evidence that there were no WMD, so also it is with MEI in this Report. Why haven’t all these supposed masses of victims complained to the police? Why haven’t there been any prosecutions? Why is it that “Only two of the individuals who spoke to Human Rights Watch about their experiences of being pressed for money had reported the incident to the police or other government authorities”, (Report, p.41) – or at least they told HRW that they had. 

But as the Report goes on to say. “both of the London Tamils who told Human Rights Watch that they had called the police regarding LTTE visits said that they felt that their complaints were not taken seriously”, (Report, p.42 ).Why didn’t the police take these complaints seriously? No prosecutions, no investigations, nothing, even though as a London Tamil apparently told HRW, “the police should be investigating the fundraising activity. “The LTTE is collecting money in broad daylight. Under the Terrorism Act, it is unlawful to support any terrorist organization, and the LTTE is proscribed as a terrorist organization in the U.K.”” (Report, p. 43). All that advice to the police, and illegal activities in broad daylight, but nothing! Any normal person would begin to suspect that a lot of very biased wishful thinking is going on.

Just as with the WMD, the Report has an explanation, as summarised in HRW-R: “We believe that the lack of prosecutions for extortion reflects both the reluctance of many Tamils to step forward because of their fear of LTTE reprisals against them and their families in Sri Lanka, as well as the failure of law enforcement to vigorously investigate and prosecute unlawful activity by the LTTE. It does not mean that intimidation is not a problem within the community.” But how many of the victims actually said that they did not go to the police because they were afraid, etc? How is it that these victims who were so intimidated and afraid to even go to the police, nevertheless summoned up the courage to speak to a mere HRW interviewer who would certainly not be able to offer them the slightest bit of protection whatsoever?

Yes, “We believe…” therefore it must be true.

Overall, the Report gives a sense of being impressionistic, where looking too closely would detract from the suggested or alluded to impression; the picture on the front cover and the title would certainly make an excellent propaganda poster, but the effect is spoiled if one looks too closely at the written contents of the Report.

While HRW-R says “We accept no money from any governments. We never pay witnesses for information… The Sri Lankan government had no involvement in this investigation in any way.” - and that is probably true - could GoSL, or any of its opportunist hangers-on, or even the pseudo-Buddhist Sinhala extremists have asked for anything better? What kind of concern for human rights and dignity is this?

HRW-R defends the Report's author as follows: “The author … is a veteran Human Rights Watch researcher with more than eight years of experience conducting human rights investigations. Her work for Human Rights Watch has included investigations in Sri Lanka, Burma, Uganda and the United States. She has extensive international and cross-cultural experience, and frequently represents Human Rights Watch in international forums.”

This reminds me of a story about two doctors, A and B, say. When A questioned the poor treatment being given to B’s patients, B replied not only with a list of his qualifications, but added that he had over 25 years of extensive experience over which he had been administering that very same treatment. A is supposed to have retorted that, in that case, B had been mistreating his patients for 25 years.

If the HRW Report’s allegations are true, surely, would it not have been better to keep the findings quiet and pass on the information to the police and other relevant authorities first? That is, of course, if HRW was sincerely concerned about the past and future victims, and, that is, if they are real.

An inspector with the London Metropolitan Police is quoted as saying “We know that extortion is going on …, (Report, p. 41), which is undoubtedly true in every country around the world to some extent. But by whom? Notably the inspector is not quoted as saying it is by the LTTE.

The sloppily made Report and the weak HRW-R have put HRW’s reputation into considerable doubt, not to mention the damage to the truth and very possibly many more lives.

The question now is does HRW care? Are having offices in London, Washington D C, New York, Geneva, etc., enough? Like the song by Peter Sarstedt which asked “where do you go to my lovely When you're alone in your bed …,” Helsinki Watch has come a long way.

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