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Historical Spotlight: Statistical Analysis and Human Rights

Artificial intelligence and analytics have gotten some bad press recently, from the role that social media has played in fracturing and heightening divisions in democratic society to the “big brother” role that data mining and image recognition have played in China’s suppression of minorities. 

But statistical analysis has also long played a role in documenting, exposing, and shedding new light on human rights catastrophes.

Soviet Terror and Forced Labor

The Soviet Great Terror of the 1930’s, and the accompanying forced labor system and forced collectivisation of agriculture cost millions their lives.  At the time, anecdotal evidence of the events circulated in the west, but the scope was unknown and many were fooled by the allure of Soviet “progress” (U.S. ambassador Joseph Davies considered the Russians to be contented workers all striving towards a socialist paradise).  Subsequent research and analysis of population records has put the death toll above 20 million.


The 1974 famine in Bangladesh cost over a million lives.  Subsequent analysis showed surprisingly that, overall, food production in Bangladesh did not decline.  Rather, weak internal distribution systems and government rationing policies that encouraged producers to hoard food combined with local flooding disasters to produce substantial pockets of famine.  Overall food supply was adequate, but local crop failures left people in affected areas too destitute to buy food.

Likewise, the 1845-49 famine in Ireland coincided with localized surpluses of sufficient size that substantial exports to England continued during this period.  As with Bangladesh, the potato crop failure led to famine primarily due to the impoverishment of affected farmers, not an overall food shortfall. 

Slave Empire in the Belgian Congo

In the early 1890’s, Edmund D. Morel, a young English clerk, made frequent trips to Antwerp to review data on the trade between Belgium and the Congo on behalf of the shipping firm that held the contract.  Analyzing the data, Morel noticed a striking fact:

  • Ships coming in from the Belgian Congo had large quantities of valuable rubber and ivory, bound for UK and European markets.
  • Ships headed outbound to the Congo, had only weapons and ammunition.  

From this trade data, Morel pieced together a picture of a vast Congo slave state run by agents of Belgian King Leopold.  Morel’s firm offered him a high-paying sinecure if he kept quiet, but Morel eventually left to become a journalist and human rights activist.  Later, eye-witness accounts of the Belgian Congo filled in the picture of a brutal forced labor enterprise that was sustained by a private army so parsimonious in its spending that local soldiers had to deliver amputated hands of victims before they would be resupplied with more bullets.  Some estimate that as many as 10 million lives were sacrificed to the rubber and ivory trade.