You are recruited as a consultant by a UN-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission to survey exactions that have been perpetrated in a fictional country, just recovering from a deadly civil war opposing various rebel factions, state-sponsored militias and governmental forces. Exactions include village destructions, summary killings, local ethnic cleansing, often accompanied by gender-based violence. Your objective is to obtain as detailed as possible accounts on exactions, including names of the perpetrators and the nature of their crimes. Note that some parts of the country are still not accessible, due to remaining violence, making direct observation impossible.
1) Indicate what your research strategy will be to collect the relevant information and make sure it is credible.
In a post-conflict setting, instability, high mobility and the threat of violence can affect the availability of participants. However, the consultant will first rely on semi-structured group and individual interviews with stakeholders such as combatants and veterans from both rebels and state militias and forces, civilians from the affected population and social media, NGO’s representatives and journalists, and government officials. Those interviews will be recorded and transcribed ‘to retain a full, un-interpreted record’ (Walliman 2006, 93) to then select the relevant information. For the selection of subjects to be as representative as possible, interveners will be identified from across the political spectrum and every social groups. Moreover the number of respondents and the possibility to meet several times will depend on the context but also the funding and time frame.
Some challenges arising from this research might be that subjects ignore the real name of the perpetrators and instead refer to them by fighters’ nicknames. Direct field observation being impossible and anyway irrelevant for our investigation surveying past exactions, information can nevertheless be collected from camps either for IDPs or refugees in order to understand why they fled. Finally, on the longer-term, an evaluation can be made from a system deriving from the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism as introduced by UNICEF to account for violations against children (UNICEF 2012).
2) Indicate also the methods you will use to minimise harm or stress among your informants.
As part of a mission to survey exactions, ethical issues must not be overlooked. Indeed, the outcomes of the investigation can impact on the participants’ reputation, dignity or privacy. Moreover, assuming that the consultant is working with people from a different cultural and ethnic background, he/she can alter the status quo by raising or decreasing the subject’s expectations (Wessells 2013, 92-93) and therefore it is necessary to be realistic about the aims, means and ends of the research.
Precautions should be taken in order to avoid potential harm occurring to people involved in the research. As a practitioner having professional status, the consultant has three key responsibilities, namely courtesy, consent and confidentiality. The first one concerns notably the use of language which needs to be carefully neutral in order to avoid being patronizing, stereotyping, marginalizing or even insulting. The solution is a previous study of the attributes, roles and interests of the respondents and if they use a different language, the translator must be prudently chosen. The second responsibility as a representative of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to gain informed consent from each participant about their rights, risks and protection such as ensuring accountability (Wood 2006, 380) in order for them to make a balanced assessment of their participation in the investigation. Finally, the context of a civil war, with a wide range of armed actors and violence involved, raises the issue of confidentiality. Indeed, when storing, transmitting or destroying the account on exactions, the names of the perpetrators and the crimes they committed, the consultant must make sure that the data are in a safe storage system protected by passwords or locked.
UNICEF. Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism: field manual. Secretary-General’s Office, 2012.
Walliman, Nicholas. Social Research Methods. SAGE Publications, 2006.
Wessells, Michael. ‘Reflections on Ethical and Practival Challenges of Conducting Research with Children in War Zones: Towards a Grounded Approach’. In Research Methods in Conflict Settings: A View from Below, edited by Dyan Mazurana, Karen Jacobsen, and Lacey Andrews Gale, 81-106. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Wood, Elizabeth. ‘The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conﬂict Zones’. Qualitative Sociology 29 (2006): 373-386.