International Studies Association Conference in Trump Country: Discussing civil society documentation of serious human rights abuses

conference-room-768441_960_720From 22 – 25 February, I travelled to the US to attend the 58th annual International Studies Association (ISA) conference entitled ‘Understanding Change in World Politics’. The theme could not be more relevant as we witness significant changes to the world political scene, most notably under the new Trump administration in the USA. A willingness by political leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and others to violate or be dismissive of human rights norms, underscores the important role played by civil society actors in holding leaders to account.

The ISA annual conference is not a typical academic conference. The size alone can be daunting. With almost 6000 participants and over 1200 panels and roundtables it is huge. The panels are essentially organised by 29 separate sections, including sections focusing on international law and human rights, my two fields of research. As a lawyer and legal scholar, I was in the minority at the conference, but greatly enjoyed being surrounded by social scientists from a wide array of disciplines and fields of study!

The panels offer exactly what the Montaigne Centre aims to achieve for its researchers: a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas related to conflict resolution, including on topics such as transitional justice and broader peacebuilding scholarship. At the conference, I presented a paper on civil society documentation of serious human rights violations. My presentation and paper, which will be published in the next issue of the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law, explores the changing landscape of civil society documentation of serious human rights violations, and what that means for standardising and professionalising documentation efforts. It builds upon a two-year documentation project that I was involved with through the School of Law’s clinical program, the VU Amsterdam, and the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG).

Changes in Documenting Human Rights Violations 

Just over 30 years ago in 1986, an article was published in the Human Rights Quarterly outlining guidelines for civil society organisations for documenting and reporting human rights violations (Randy B Reiter, Maria-Victoria Zunzunegui and Jose Quiroga, ‘Guidelines for Field Reporting of Basic Human Rights Violations’ 8 Human Rights Quarterly 628 (1986)). The article addressed issues of collecting information and using the data collected. It explained organisational structure and stressed the need for the ‘standardization’ of procedures for the documentation of human rights violations.

At the time, this article was breaking new ground. While civil society organisations and NGOs operating in the field had long been collecting information on violations, much of that information was not being utilised and many human rights defenders were putting themselves and others at unnecessary risk. There was a large gap between what was happening on the ground and what national, regional or international actors could do with that information in order to support efforts to improve the human rights situation. The authors therefore stressed the importance of greater cooperation between international and national organisations, and essentially called for the ‘professionalisation’ of documentation efforts. Since the publication of this article, initiatives to standardise and professionalise documentation efforts have really taken shape. Although the foundational principles of documentation remain the same, the documentation of crimes has changed significantly over the last three decades.

First, there has been a rapid increase and spread of technology, in particular mobile technology, which in part has contributed to a rise in citizen journalism/unofficial investigations. The world is increasingly becoming hyper-connected. The surge of mobile technology has meant that there are new and easier ways for individuals to document human rights abuses, from recording events as they happen to photographing crimes scenes to recording interviews with victims and witnesses, and connecting with others. On the one hand, it has led to an improvement in coverage of abuses and an ability to verify information. On the other hand, it has also resulted in the fact that documenters may not have any training on best practices since most will not be working within organised human rights groups that approach documentation with some background knowledge.

Second, there is a growing recognition of the need for greater documentation and increasing support for the standardisation and professionalisation of documentation efforts. The support comes from States, inter-governmental organisations, international foundations and international NGOs. This expanding base of support from the international level in particular has resulted in a proliferation of responses by numerous international civil society organisations.

Proliferation of Documentation Initiatives

In response to the demand for greater documentation worldwide, larger international NGOs have become active in facilitating standardisation and professionalisation, through the collection and sharing of best practices and creating tools to help with documentation efforts. Initiatives aimed at general documentation have increased significantly in the last few years. In June 2015, the International Bar Association (IBA), partnering with LexisNexis Legal & Professional (a leader in information and technology services), launched its eyeWitness to Atrocity project. The project developed a mobile app that allows users to record and upload video and photos of human rights abuses. The app captures metadata, such as the date, time and location, which is needed to ensure the admissibility of digital evidence that can later be used in investigations and evidence in court. The project created a secure repository, database and backup system to store and analyse the data collected via the app, which can then verify that the footage is original and has not been altered.

Also in 2015, WITNESS launched its extensive ‘Video as Evidence Field Guide’, which helps individuals who film abuse enhance the evidentiary value of the material in order to bring about justice. They also emphasise how to ethically approach taking video evidence. Similarly, Amnesty International created the Citizen Evidence Lab. It provides a forum to share best practices, techniques and tools for authenticating user-generated material. Working together with human rights centres at three universities from around the world, it has also recently launched its Digital Verification Corps. The aim of this initiative is to train ‘future human rights investigators in the techniques and skills required to verify content that depicts potential human rights abuses found on open social media platforms’.

Similarly, PILPG has been actively involved with documentation initiatives. In addition to country-based projects, PILPG developed a Handbook on Civil Society Documentation of Serious Human Rights Violations as well as a more visual and easily transportable accompanying Fieldguide. Finally, as the leader of an eight-member consortium, PILPG has developed, and recently launched, a human rights documentation toolkit (HRD Toolkit) designed to bridge the gap between the needs of documenters and the vast array of available documentation resources. The project integrates existing resources on human rights documentation into a single adaptable and accessible resource for the people on the ground actually carrying out documentation. Users can search for information by language, violation, format, challenge, method or tool type. The work of PILPG and other international organisations and universities, to assist and support local civil society actors, is only possible because of the increasing recognition by funders of the importance of documentation work and because of the ability to connect through modern technology to the tools available online.

Greater Cooperation is Need

Standardisation of documenting human rights violations has many benefits. With the emphasis on the ethical conduct of documentation initiatives including the ‘do no harm’ principle and protection issues, standardised practices aim to protect the lives of those involved with documentation. Standardisation also helps avoid secondary trauma or re-victimisation to individuals who have witnessed or been victims of serious human rights violations. The principles underlying documentation work help to ensure that the safety and psychological well-being of the individual is the main concern. Standardisation also helps ensure the quality of the information collected, which may provide some quality assurance for later use of that information whether for a criminal investigation or truth-telling purpose. This quality assurance can also ultimately save time and money if or when the information is later used in another transitional justice context.

Notwithstanding these benefits, it should not be forgotten that an increasingly professional emphasis may also have its drawbacks. Stressing the importance of ‘professionals’ may have a disempowering and alienating effect on individuals, making them less eager to get involved with fact-finding efforts. A more professionalised sector may also place civil society actors at greater risk vis-a-vis their governments if they are looking into holding government actors responsible for serious crimes. Moreover, it is important to be cautious against predominantly top-down responses that strip grassroots activities of agency or responsibility. The standardisation of documentation tools should not merely be a top-down exercise. Rather, it must emerge from horizontal and vertical collaborative action. Finally, it will also be important to avoid the duplication of efforts that may lead to confusion on the part of end users. The unique purpose of each initiative should be made clear and steps should be taken to avoid replication of work.

The documentation initiatives undertaken thus far should be applauded, but greater cooperation, dissemination and training is needed. The barriers facing civil society documentation efforts are significant, but when local and international actors work together, documentation work has the potential to significantly impact the promotion and protection of human rights. This research, in addition to focusing on connections between international and local organisations, aims to highlight the link between scholarship and policy development.  These links and connections have always been important but as the political landscape changes in the coming years, these connections may become more important than ever before.

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Brianne McGonigle Leyh

About Brianne McGonigle Leyh

Dr. McGonigle Leyh is an associate professor with Utrecht University’s Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) where she is a member of the Montaigne Centre for Judicial Administration and Conflict Resolution. She is also an executive editor of the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights and co-directs the Utrecht Centre for International Studies (UCIS)