Prestigious medical journal probes allegations of bias
The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, has asked Wayne State University to investigate allegations of bias made against the author of a paper that found systemic human-rights violations in Haiti despite the presence of a Canadian-led United Nations police force and peacekeeping mission.
Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor, said he is sufficiently concerned about the complaint that he asked the Detroit university to conduct an investigation into whether author Athena Kolbe’s use of a pseudonym and past employment at a Haitian orphanage founded by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide placed her in a conflict of interest.
“One of the issues the study deals with is violence in a politically divided setting, so the independence of the study becomes very important to understanding it,” Mr. Horton said in a telephone interview. “We sought clarification from the authors. We received it and felt there needed to be a further investigation by the university.”
The study, published last month, found that 8,000 Haitians have been slain and 35,000 woman and girls raped since the ouster of Mr. Aristide in early 2004.
Ms. Kolbe said that, according to local Haitians, Canadian peacekeepers made death threats against them during house raids, and sexual advances against women while the peacekeepers were drunk and off duty.
The peer-reviewed study of 5,720 randomly selected Haitians living in the capital also found that in the 22-month period since Mr. Aristide was ousted, 97 in Port-au-Prince had received death threats, 232 had been threatened physically and 86 sexually. One-third of those who issued death threats were criminals, 18 per cent were Haitian National Police and another 17 per cent were foreign soldiers. Only 6 per cent were Lavalas, members of Mr. Aristide’s party.
Ms. Kolbe, a 30-year-old master’s student at Wayne State’s school of social work, authored the study with assistant professor Royce Hutson.
The controversy arose after complaints were made against Ms. Kolbe by Charles Arthur, co-ordinator of the British-based Haiti Support Group. Mr. Arthur alleged that Ms. Kolbe was biased because she had worked for the Lafanmi Selavi centre for street children in the mid-1990s and “befriended” Mr. Aristide.
She also used to be an advocacy journalist who wrote under the name Lyn Duff. The Lancet paper contains footnotes from Lyn Duff.
Ms. Kolbe said this week that she disclosed this information about her background to the university’s institutional review board and also sought the permission of Haiti’s interim president, Gerard Latortue, to conduct the study. She said she used to go by Lyn Duff — an old nickname and her mother’s surname — but decided to use her real first name and her father’s surname once she entered academia.
“I didn’t disclose it to The Lancet because I had already told the review board at the university,” she said. “I and Royce Hutson are American citizens. We are not affiliated with the Lavalas [Mr. Aristide’s] Party.”
In a past interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Kolbe said she had “warm feelings” toward Mr. Aristide, but was also critical of some of his decisions. Mr. Aristide’s first term in office was interrupted by a 1991 military coup, and his second ended abruptly on Feb. 29, 2004, after a rebellion of thugs and ex-soldiers forced him out. Mr. Aristide maintains the United States forced him into exile.
Canada sent 450 soldiers to Haiti in March of 2004, part of a UN peacekeeping mission of 6,700 soldiers and 1,600 police. There are currently 66 Canadian police officers leading the UN police force.
Ms. Kolbe believes the study generated controversy because of its new methodology in tallying the death rate in a violent conflict. The authors used the same methodology undertaken in a recently released study on Iraq, which found that 650,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the 2003 invasion and the ensuing violence. Researchers in this study, also published in The Lancet, questioned household members in 47 randomly selected sites about births, deaths and migrations. This study has also been criticized.
“What is clear is that we need to develop new ways to measure mortality and injury during armed conflict. These new ways show higher rates of death than people would like to see,” Ms. Kolbe said. “So the topic itself was bound to generate some controversy because it’s a new way of measuring mortality.”