Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, shared his experiences in human rights documentation at AAAS on 25 October. | Heming Nelson/Public Interest Law & Policy Group
Human rights documentation experts working in countries from Syria to South Sudan laid out the challenges they face collecting evidence of human rights violations in war-torn and inaccessible nations during a panel discussion on 25 October.
Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the Department of State, said finding new ways to document human rights abuses that range from genocide to the destruction of cultural icons around the globe is essential to strengthening work that helps curb such tragedies. He made the comments in opening remarks at the event held at AAAS’ headquarters.
“We always have to be questioning ourselves. We always have to be looking at what we do from every possible angle,” Malinowski said.
Accounts of atrocities might not have the same shock value to the public as they have had in the past, Malinowski said, yet “the documentation work that activists around the world and human rights organizations around the world do is still profoundly important.”
Four human rights documenters brought into focus the obstacles they confront, sharing unique experiences of working to document human rights violations in combat zones and other restrictive environments. The also outlined strategies that have helped them cope with the challenges they encounter.
Mohammad Al Abdallah, executive director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center, pointed to Syria’s civil war that over five years has transformed from a conflict between those loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel forces who opposed him into a complex battle of rival militias and world powers, leaving human rights workers seeking evidence from a polarized Syrian society.
“A big challenge is keeping our impartiality,” said Al Abdallah.
Maria Sjödin, the executive deputy director of OutRight Action International, an organization that investigates human rights violations against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender communities, said LGBTI people often feel isolated and connecting with them is essential for a documenter to learn about their experiences.
“For groups to do documentation properly, they need to build a sense of community,” Sjödin said.
Catherine Aate echoed this sentiment. She is a program manager of a human rights documentation program in South Sudan for the Public International Law & Policy Group. Aate said documenters can more easily relate to a person if they have shared similar struggles or were born in the same area.
Rosa Park, the director of programs and editor at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, has found ways to overcome the unique challenge of not having personnel on the ground, something Park said the current regime does not allow.
The committee deals with this setback through a combination of satellite imaging and the collection of interviews with North Korean defectors. Through these techniques, the group is able to learn and document conditions on the ground.
The panel discussion coincided with the launch of the Human Rights Documentation Toolkit, a digital collection of resources designed to meet the needs of documenters around the world.
The toolkit is the result of a partnership between 10 organizations with experience studying human rights issues. The consortium was led by the Public International Law & Policy Group, a pro bono law firm, and included the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. The Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor also supported the project.
The data and strategies included in the toolkit were mined from multiple research projects aimed at learning more about the challenges that documenters face, as well as the tools that they already use in their work.
For example, a questionnaire, produced by PILPG, was distributed to 57 documenters in 42 countries to gather such information.
Elinor Stevenson, senior counsel at PILPG, helped prepare the questionnaire. She was surprised by how many documenters used Facebook as a tool to coordinate their efforts, speculating that it might be due to an existing familiarity with the site.
“They know how to use Facebook already, so it fits into their workflow for documentation,” Stevenson said.
The survey responses contributed to the creation of an online resource library within the toolkit, which contains documents and handbooks that explain documentation techniques.
Many of these handbooks were produced by AAAS, according to Senior Program Associate Theresa Harris, and cover topics from the monitoring of border conflicts using satellite imagery to violations of the human right to water.
[Associated image: From left, Milica Kostić of the Humanitarian Law Center, Bassam al-Ahmad of the Syrians for Truth and Justice and Özgur Sevgi Göral of the Truth, Justice and Memory Center discussed human rights documentation at AAAS on 25 October. | Juan David/AAAS]