Documenting Violations: Choosing the Right Approach

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I think your question is very interesting and important.

However, I don't think it is true that perpetrators necessarily keep records of their activities. For example, in Sierra Leone there appear to be limited paper records of the actions of different groups. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created there, they had to rely on testimonies and written submissions from experts and interested parties.

However, in Iraq, as you point out, the situation is quite different, at least for those violations committed under the governments of the Ba'ath Party and Saddam Hussein (as opposed to many of the systematic violations committed post-2003). The Iraqi government was profoundly bureaucratic and it kept almost obsessively detailed records on many citizens, including various documents from security procedures. The regime committed atrocities in a manner that often followed both procedures and law, with for example, significant resources directed to special courts that provided the appearance of due process while convicting virtually everyone who appeared before its judges.

I believe that governments of this type store files of repression in more or less the same way they store other tyeps of information. It is part of the way they manage power, an element of the bureaucratization of repression as a type of governance.

What is interesting here as regards this online discussion is that the human rights community may not be addressing violations with a sensitivity to the type of regime/party/perpetrator that is responsible for atrocities. Instead, violations are typically recorded asmultiple versions of the same essential act, such that a case of torture in one place is seen as similar to a case in another.

Of course, researchers with expertise in different regions generally operate with great cultural and contextual sensitivity, but the profession of human rights may not be certain as to how to address differences in the type and operation of perpetrators.

Should a violaton be understood differently when it is carefully recorded and where the perpetrators are acting under the color of law and according to set policies?

Should human rights documentation and analysis seek a means of understanding violatons in relation to the regime type of the perpetrators?

Would this sort of focus provide greater understanding of violations? Would it help in prevention? 

Terror and the Record

Patrick and Dan - I would add:

  •  there are indeed instances of such great impunity that the perpetrators of human rights abuses and crimes may brag about their acts and the historical record then becomes a sort of trophy of their "accomplishments."
  • in some cases records of terror may gain new value or may have had multiple deployments when they were created (i.e. the surveillence records of the East German government  which survived the fall of the DDR).
  • most importantly, records are crucial for the instrumentation of power and reflect the organization of that power.

Dan is correct - the paper, or, perhaps more appropriately, the "bit trail" can tell us much about the nature of a historical instance of human rights abuses.  For example, In Argentina in 1983 when the military junta handed over  power to civilian authorities they concurrently made an attempt to destroy all records of their action.  They failed to erase their crimes because documentation had been such an integral part of their terror machine (they were even purported to have run their own printing press to turn out all sorts of forged records and documents) but also because much of the ground work of the repression in Argentina was carried out by provincial and municipal police.  This organizational structure left its trace in the structure of the records and many of the police fonds were remote and out of sight of the military and thus escpaed destruction.  New fonds such as these continue to turn up, not just in Argentina but all over such as the case in Guatemala.  The archiving tendancy of organized terror is compelling described in  Francisco Goldman's "The Art of Political Murder" .

Administrative Records, take 2

Having read through all the excellent comments, I feel the need to add that there might be cases where most of the bureaucratic machine doesn't see what is being done as human rights abuses.  Take, for example, a government that becomes increasingly repressive over time.  They have administrative records because large organizations of any type (governmental or not) keep records in order to ensure the functions of the organization run smoothly.  Any prison that is well-run will have records on each prisoner, if for no other reason that to know when they are to be released.  In any case, the system is set up, including the record-keeping, before things "go awry" -- and it chugs along as usual, recording events/people/movements/etc.

In Sierra Leone, the rebel groups were operating in the jungle and had no long-standing organizational record-keeping -- so it makes sense that records weren't kept on particular operations.

Just my early morning musings.


--- What are the purposes of documentation?

Under this main theme, please discuss these kinds of questions:

  • Questionsregarding the end users of data - who is the information intended for?
  • What do organizations do with the information - what is the goal? Education, advocacy, legislation, legal/judicial purposes, victim healing, etc?  Please share your examples here. 

[NOTE: This is a PUBLIC dialogue. Please do not expose any names or locations if there is any risk of security.]

End users of data

I believe the intended end use of the data can greatly influence how the data should be collected.

If the end use is to prove the existence of human rights violations, document those violations for historical or legislative purposes, to inform the work of a truth and reconciliation commission, or to be used in a trial of a war criminal, then the documentation efforts are likely to be scrutinized so thoroughly that any small error -- whether it really has an impact on the conveyance of the truth of the human rights abuses or not  -- could lead to a disaster (i.e., the war criminal being found innocent, the TRC being discredited, and so on).

If the end use is to provide reparations and/or humanitarian aid, then that type of overly-intense scrutiny might not be present.  On the other hand, mistakes would still potentially be disastrous, if they led to aid or assistance being inappropriately distributed.  

In either case, you want data to be as high quality as possible.  For qualitative methods, rigorous methodology that ensures (as much as possible) that key information is collected (e.g., who, what, when, where, etc.) is desired.  For quantitative methods, random sample surveys, when possible, are preferable to non-random data, although care must be taken to ensure the random sample survey is implemented well.

Researchers/practitioners that focus on human rights tend to be more oriented towards data collection for the former purposes -- but the latter purposes are perhaps of more interest to those that experienced past violations.  As such, we should be careful to collect data in such as way as they can be used to inform reparations/assistance whenever possible, even if that isn't our mandate.


End users - what is the goal?


It is great that you and others have raised this critical point about the need to define the end goal or purpose of the documentation. Taking the time to be clear about this end goal and purpose provides the best guide to what information needs to be collected; how it is collected - to be credible and most userful; what resources will be needed in order to apply the information to reach the goal.

I want to connect readers of the dialogue to Daniel D'Esposito two great posts that provide excellent points and information to consider:

Jana - your point about "we should be careful to collect data in such as way as they can be used to inform reparations/assistance whenever possible, even if that isn't our mandate" also points to the need for organizations to take the time to think about their long term vision, not just the short term goal of a specific project and how we might collaborate with others to maximize the use of information beting collected.

I want to share that our Tactics Database provides many great examples of how organizations have used documentation to reach a specific goal. I typed in "documentation" into the search box - this provided a variety of examples from organizations around the world highlighting many of the purposes outlined by Daniel in his "What is documentation?" post. 


varying and shifting intended end-uses

This question of the end-use of the data being collected is an issue those of us working on Burma have been grappling since setting out to create a comprehensive database of human rights violations.

Six years ago, several groups that already had a strong track record of documenting violations came together to form a network and put their data into a common format. (The network has since doubled its membership.) The stated purpose at the time was "to create an accurate historical record" - deliberately vague and non-committal, but with an eye more toward potential transitional justice measures (a truth commission, prosecutions, reparations, etc. in a future democratic Burma) than toward present-day advocacy efforts. The groups are using Martus, which Jaya introduced to this dialogue in this comment. We found Martus ideal for this broad goal because we were very focused on not imposing too rigid a goal on the network members while they built trust among themselves and began to recognize the benefits to their organizations of participating in a network. I believe if we had been more heavy-handed about asking the individual member organizations to focus on specific issues or had given them a more rigid format to follow, we would have lost members.

Network members have now entered over 3,000 records (called "bulletins" in Martus) in the database, and the template being used is largely a big text box but it also has some fields (geographical, biographical, types of violations, dates) that help with searching data and running reports about the database contents.

With a relatively large volume of data now collected, the network has decided it does not want to sit on the data and is turning its attention to present-day advocacy. We have found that going from broad to very specific is much easier than the other way around, which I suppose is logical. In 2010, the network will publish a report on arbitrary taxation, and the data for that report was taken from the data entered previously in the "capture it all" stage, as well as from an effort over the last year to have filedworkers focus specifically on the issue of arbitrary taxation.

The network is also increasingly trying to respond to outside requests for its data for various human rights campaigns (e.g. to end the use of child soldiers, on alleged crimes against humanity in eastern Burma, etc.) and the capture-it-all approach allows them to go back and retrieve some relevant data. Some weaknesses in the data exist, particularly a lack of detail, and the network is developing more sophisticated training methods for fieldworkers to address those weaknesses. Benetech has helped tremndously with this process (and please feel free to add anything here Jaya!).

I think the jury is still out about whether the slow, capture-it-all approach was the best way to go for the Burmese groups, but so far I feel confident that it was - but it will take a lot more effort and resources to build on the base that has been established.


Shadow reports as end-use

Thanks, Patrick, for sharing this great example from Burma that highlights this important point of documentation.  I am sure that many organizations are in the situation of wanting to collect as much data as possible so that they can be flexible in the future regarding the end-use options for the information.  Where does an organization draw the line for the amount of data that they will collect, given their resources - and is it necessary that they do? 

I wanted to share another great end-use of human rights data - 'Shadow Reports.'  You will find many great examples of human rights organization using Shadow Reports to advocate for their issue at a regional and international level, in our 'Using Shadow Reports for Advocacy' dialogue.  Shadow reports are submitted to human rights treaty monitoring bodies from NGOs as an 'alternative' report to the State's required report.




Documentation by itself can be a process as simple as the accumulation of sources (books, newspapers, testimonies, images, etc.)
Among the human rights community, (at least in our countries) the following tends to be a habit: taking a picture of everything, collecting magazine articles, storing newspapers, books, official documents...
This information gathering is valuable, taking under consideration that it can be organized afterwards for future analysis. In our experience, we stumbled upon the need to have a minimal identification and classification of the info so that it could be of immediate and accurate use. In our day to day experience, we've learned that investigators prefer using secondary information rather that the primary source.
Internal investigators at the National Police Archive have had to do enormous efforts to get quality reports done based on that primary source. Better luck have had the external investigators who've used the organized information system created during the archival-investigative process of the Archive recovery.
What has been your experience?

--- What are the risks, challenges & opportunities of this work?

Under this main theme, please discuss these kinds of questions:

  • How is the quality of data assessed?
  • How to overcome challenges of limited resources? How does a group prioritize its documentation work?
  • Engagement of scientists to community members
  • How can data systems preserve teh data for the future - long term value of data (10, 20, 50 years)?
  • What are the risks that need to be assessed before implementing documentation work and what tools can organizations/groups use to diminish these risks (information/data security, etc)?
  • Please share any resources, guides, tools that you have developed or used for training groups on human rights documentation. 
What are our assumptions?

I am interested in thinking through some of the assumptions we make, as human rights practitioners, about the benefits of testimony as a form human rights documentation. In what circumstances is it inappropriate or harmful for people to talk about the violence they witnessed or themselves suffered?

Security plays an important role, for example, if the story a person tells implicates someone who is still a threat to her or him. Some of the best writing I've seen about this issue is by Kimberly Theidon, an anthropologist at Harvard. See this link to her January 2007 Journal of Human Rights article, Gender in Transition: Common Sense, Women, and War (particularly pages 459-464, about the problems of safety in telling one's stories.)

There is also the question of whether talking about one's suffering is "healing" or "redemptive." Rosalind Shaw, a professor at Tufts University, has done some interesting work on this issue in the context of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, examining how those assumptions have come to appear natural and universal, and the ways they do not ring true in Sierra Leone. See this link to her paper for USIP and this link for an abstract in the International Journal of Transitional Justice.


More harm than benefit?

Good comments.

I am especially concerned about the issue you raise in your last paragraph, but I like to think of documentation via discussion with a survivor in this ethical framework: "Will interacting with this individual about the abuses they experienced create more harm to them than benefit?"  For example, if I am documenting human rights violations for the purpose of a trial against a war criminal, it might be the case that there is no direct benefit to the person telling their story.  In that case, if telling the story isn't healing/redemptive, then is it ethical to be asking individuals to do so?  On the other hand, if the data are to be used for reparations of some type, what level of harm to the individual telling the story is permissible? Actually, types of harm other than psychological harm can be considered in the same framework, but here I'm focusing on direct psychological harm from being forced to recall a traumatic event.

One practice I try to follow--and I've seen followed by others--is to have trained counselors available to help violation survivors if the process of telling their story is harmful to their psyche.   In that way, we hope to minimize the possibility that more harm than good will be done to the informant during the process of recalling the abuse.  The issue here, of course, is that having a counselor handy is a "band-aid" and not a cure.  But if we, as those that document human rights violations, both provide that type of support and also try to make sure that at least some of the information we collect could be used toward reparations and/or humanitarian assistance, that would go a long way towards swinging the ethical pendulum in the "more benefit than harm" direction.




One of the more complicated areas of work for those, like me, who gather testimonies is seeking to make sense of what this at means, for all of those involved.

On the one hand, there is a large literature about testimony that suggests that speaking about past trauma can be cathartic. This tends to be produced by professionals who are not themselves victims.

On the other hand, there is the also rather large literature of testimony that arises from people looking for an environment in which their voices can be heard. Those who produce these works tend to be victims. This approach is of great significance in Latin America where the term "testimonio" has a special valence.

It is not always easy to work between those two driving forces within human rights work. Just as the idea of "victim-centered" approaches is itself complex, well-meaning, but not necessarily accurate as regards how work is conceptualized and implemented.

At the same time almost anyone who has worked in areas of systematic conflict knows that many victims desire to tell their stories, often with no evident benefit (no money, fame, job, etc.) and often where speaking about political violence may place that person at great risk.

Why is this so?

And, do we (as human rights researchers and advocates) need to understand why victims want to speak given that people are, in fact, driven by very different desires?

I am not talking here about the issue of securitya nd confidentiality which is widely discussed and always in need of attention, I am interested instead in how we make sense of the underlying reasons why people want to tell their stories.


Ingredients for maximizing benefits

Thank you all for raising these important questions - and especially, what does it mean for people to be involved in documentation of human rights abuses.

I would like to share an important perspective on this from one of our previous New Tactics dialogues on the "Healing of memories: Overcoming the wounds of history"

Fr. Michael Lapsley of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in South Africa posted a comment where he stated, "Every person has a story to tell. Every story needs a listener."  In addition, he provided some essential ingredients for moving a story from a simple recounting to an opportunity and potential pathway to healing - for individuals, communities and nations. The ingredients include that the story is: 

  • listened to
  • acknowledged
  • reverenced
  • recognised
  • given a moral content.

For example, he states, "I would like to emphasize the difference between knowledge and acknowledgment and its importance for healing individuals, communities and nations.  Families can have guilty secrets. There is abuse in a family.  Everybody knows. There is knowledge but no acknowledgment, perhaps even denial.  What is true of individuals and families is also true of nations.

Where torture, or forms of abuse, have taken place, the torturer will tell the tortured that no mark will be left so no-one will believe that they have been tortured.  Finally healing begins, when it is publically acknowledged that yes, you were tortured, and it was wrong.  Torture inverts the moral order. Acknowledgment helps to recreate the moral order."

I would like to pose that the initial process of documentation of violations can provide an opportunity for at least the first step - a story being listened to. A person may even feel that the listener acknowledges the violation in an important way. This can be a first step for that person to begin their healing journey. One way to maximize the benefit and reduce the potential harm is for those documenting violations to provide that active listening and acknowledgement - a powerful combination. I made to make a special note here - that those documenting violations are also in great need of support, being listened to and acknowledged in order to reduce the impact of secondary trauma on their own lives. 

I would also like to pose that some of the other ingredients for healing often take a much longer time to realize. Documentation can serve a very important role here. The long term benefits and potential uses of good quality documentation and storage of that data may be realized only 10, 20, 50 years and beyond.

For example, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has collected records of the victims of the Cambodia genocide. A unique service of DC-Cam is the Family Tracing File System. This service helps families discover the fate of their loved ones through detailed records that the Khmer Rouge regime kept on many individuals that disappeared during this time period. But another goal of the documentation was to collect evidence for a legal accounting of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The DC-CAM records are now serving such a role in the Cambodia Tribunal.

I'm very interested to hear how others see the interaction of this critical aspect of documentation and "Choosing the Right Approach".

Are there experiences and methods you can share that can enhance the benefits to victims and communities?


I think the input by Fr.

I think the input by Fr. Lapsley from the previous dialogue raises some of the concerns that I address at the beginning. I am sure that in many contexts, perhaps most contexts, silence about one's suffering can cause emotional damage, and so providing a safe forum for breaking that silence is a good thing. However, I caution against universalizing it as "human nature." Instead, I suspect that the importance put on the cathartic and healing impacts of telling of one's own suffering varies from society to society. This is, in fact, what Rosalind Shaw concludes in the USIP paper I reference above.

I also think it's problematic to apply principles about human psychology to a larger populace - a community or a nation. I don't agree that "what is true of individuals and families is also true of nations." Nations don't, in fact, have a psyche that can be "treated," and approaching human rights policies as if they do would be really problematic.

 In 2003 during an assessment process to get a sense for what documentation efforts were already happening among Burmese communities and to gauge the willingness to form a network, a group of us met with refugee and migrant communities on the Thai-Burma border. After I introduced the idea of forming a network and asked for feedback - who had ever been interviewed, about what, and by whom - one woman basically said if another person comes through the refugee camp and asks her to tell her story, she's going to start charging money for it. She was half-kidding, but her point was something akin to sympathy fatigue (hearing too much about suffering) - maybe "suffering fatigue," (talking too much about suffering). She didn't need a counselor, she didn't need to be comforted, and she had originally been very willing to tell her story because she hoped it would lead to some benefit - exposure of the violence that the ethnic groups in Burma were suffering under military rule. But all she saw or perceived was rich Westerners - some journalists, some diplomats, academics - getting a dramatic story from her to put in their reports so they could raise money to write more reports (how she put it).

 I'm not saying we shouldn't carry out documentation; in fact, it's the main focus of my own work. However, I do think we need to be very careful to challenge ourselves and each other about the assumptions we make about the benefits, and risks, that talking about violence brings. 

Concerns - highly important


Thank you so much for bringing the point back to the concern. I realize that I did not bring my point back to addressing that concern. 

I absolutely agree with your point of "'suffering fatigue' (talking too much about suffering)" and this is especially true when a person sees that the re-telling of their story over and over not only yields no change but feels exploitive.  This is most definitely detrimental and harmful.

I wanted to point out the need to look more wholistically at those ingredients offered from Fr. Lapsley's work on the healing of memories that can maximize beneficial change (progress on one's heaing journey) that I was hoping to point out.

I appreciate you bringing it back to the concerns.

Can or do some of the emerging technologies being shared in this dialogue facilitate the cross-sharing of documentation among organizations to reduce the number of times people are asked to tell their stories?


professional victims

The issue of giving providing victims with an opportunity to speak is at the heart of a significabt amount of fieldwork based advocacy.

However, many of us who have worked in the area can probably recount many useful anecdotes of how this process is profoundly cathartic if not necessary for so many people around the world.

In fact, one of the odd aspects of conducting interviews in this area is how common it is to find people who have never spoken of the extreme trauma they've suffered.

And, clearly, many seek a space to speak, an opportunity to be heard, especially by someone who lives apart from their social world and is less likely to judge the person who tells his/her story.

It is very difficult to know why people want to speakabout what they have experienced. One cannot know simply by asking. And, one can't easily distinguish the factors that lead one victim to seek out an opportunity to be heard while another wants to avoid revisiting painful memories.

As advocates, we have to balance many issues from security to care. Overall, I believe we need to ground our work above all in respect.

Yet, the world of communicating complex political situations through testimony is fraught with complexity, especially in light of the usual disparities between the social power and sophistication of victims and foreign, professional human rights workers.

Most of us have probably seen or even known well those individuals who become what might be termed "professional victims" finding that their tale of abuse allows them access to attention, power, travel and all sorts of benefits that would not accrue to them if they either had not suffered terribly or had suffered but were unwilling or unable to speak about it.

Where these stories are the subject of media interest, policy vindication (or critique), etc. it is hard to control the way in which testimonies and the truth they encode play out in a world of media and political demands.

Interestingly the phenomenon is both a testament to the power of stories and often a means through which the richness of an individual's existence is reduced to their trauma, an act that runs counter to the spirit of human rights. 

Challenges and Risks

With our HR documentation work in FIji we face quite a lot of challenges.  One of the main ones is in this political climate of persecution, censorship and threats, access to information is so limited.  It is very difficult to obtain information from survivors and witnesses on violations and with the censorship and control over the media it proves even more difficult.

Another  challenge we tend to face is the lack of capacity building andupskilling of human rights officers in the field esp in the documentation and analysis areas.

Resources for the protection of human rights defenders

Thank you, Roshika, for sharing your concerns regarding human rights documentation in Fiji.  Documentation is often a dangerous job, especially in the countries whose citizens most desperately need the advocacy provided through documentation efforts. I hope that other practitioners share their own resources and tools to this thread, but I will start with the resources that I am familiar with. 

As you can imagine, the concerns that you have raised come up in many of our online dialogues. Human rights defenders working in different fields, on different issues, in different regions face these challenges of security.  The NGO, Frontline Defenders, has developed rich resources to enhance the ability of human rights defenders to face these challenges:


human rights documentation


 That material is great! Just so everyone knows, we are almost finished with a manual in English and Arabic to assist human rights NGOs in documenting violations, analyzing the material they gather and the developing advocacy programs. 

Unlike some available material, this manual focuses on the mechanics of how to understand a social problem as a human rights violation and then develop a research stratgegy involving gathering documents, conducting interviews, etc.

If anyone here is interested, please just stay in touch with me at or 

Is it possible that one outcome of this discussion could be a clearinghouse on human rights documentation materials?

Right now HREA does a great job on this, but they list so many types of sources...perhaps there is some value of a site that focuses only on the issues of documentation, including manuals and critical material.

re. human rights documentation

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Hello Patrick,
<p class="MsoNormal">
Good comment!
<p class="MsoNormal">
Actually, we at HURIDOCS are working on an on-line resource centre for human rights documentation materials.
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This would be a collaborative effort, with inputs from several
organisations (of course, we will quote sources and give due credits).
Right now, Oleg Burlaca is working on the platform on which it will
<p class="MsoNormal">
We would include resources on the following topics:
Advocacy strategies
Audio-visual documentation
Controlled vocabularies - terminology
Data analysis and social research
Human rights archives
Information security
<li>Library documentation
Monitoring and documentation of violations
Monitoring economic, social and cultural rights
Monitoring particular rights, including elections, child rights, women's rights, discrimination, hate crimes, etc.
Search, intelligence and scanning
Visualisation and mapping
Working with human rights indicators.
Feedback is welcome!
Best wishes,

New Tactics group as a clearing house on documentation materials


I look forward to seeing the manual that the International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI) at DePaul University College of Law is developing! And how great it is that it will be available in Arabic! 

In response to your question - yes, New Tactics would be very happy to be a clearing house for human rights documentation material.  I just noticed that Bert also added a comment about the development of another platform for this purpose.  In the meantime, I would like to invite you to join the New Tactics Documentating Violations group. This is a space for online community members to continue focused dialogues on particular tactics/topics, share resources, video, images, links, etc. We also have groups on many other tactics and topics if you are interested! 


Violation-specific documentation manuals

Daniel (and all),

You may be interested in the documentation manuals developed by the Network for Human Rights Documentation - Burma (ND-Burma) on the 15 categories of human rights violations that the network focuses on (listed below and linked here: Each manual is divided into three chapters:

1- Documenting the violation (e.g. what are the essential elements that make it a violation, what questions to ask to establish that each of those elements is there, sample good and bad interviews)

2- Analysis - identifying patterns in the data that point to violations of international law (crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide)

3- Advocacy - with a focus on what UN bodies are relevant and how to contact them 

The 15 categories of violations are: (1) recruitment and use of child soldiers, (2) forced labor, (3) arbitrary arrest and detention, (4) rape, (5) other forms of sexual violence, (6) human trafficking, (7) forced marriage, (8) forced prostitution, (9) obstruction of freedom of movement, (10) forced relocation, (11) obstruction of freedom of expression and assembly, (12) torture and other forms of ill-treatment, (13) killing, (14) disappearance, (15) violations of property rights 


Violation specific work - and documentation systems


Your post certainly does raise many questions. It makes wonder how the documentation systems (Martus, OpenEvSys, etc) that have been shared here try to take these kinds of questions of multiple abuses into account.

You stated, "The  research and advocacy question, then, is what sort of information should a group collect in order to realize its objectives? Rather than imagine that a set form can be used to collect data, it is often true that useful human rights research requires sensitivity to the demands of a particular organization, project or endeavor."

Here at the Center for Victims of Torture where our work is focused on helping people heal from the wounds of torture - your questions become very specific to each person and integrated into each person's journey and their healing process. As you have stated, often survivors of torture are not able to remember how many times they were tortured, how much time passed, how many people and locations were involved. Torture is intended to not only disorient but dismantle a person.

Kristin had mentioned in an earlier post that the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs in the United States are jointly collecting data. Here's an example for sharing a stated purpose for data collection. From the NCTTP website:

The main purpose of this Data Repository is to gather data related to torture survivors in treatment in the United States. We feel it is vital that scientific descriptions pertaining to the demographics, outputs and outcomes of the treatment of torture victims in the United States be available to the public for training, advocacy, and research.

New data is currently being collected from approximately 25 treatment centers across the United States for FY 2009.

  • These data can give a clearer picture of where torture survivors come from, who they are, and where they are treated in the U.S.
  • Collection of these data is the beginning step in developing rational planning for needs and services and evaluation of these.


some thoughts on controlled vocabulary

Dan - you raise very, very relevant questions for any project attempting to analyze human rights data!! I wanted to share some thoughts about the implementation of controlled vocabularies that draws on our experience using them, that in part speaks to your points about the difficulty of coding incidents that seem to include multiple violations/acts. In particular, I hope the thoughts about 'counting rules' in controlled vocabularies and inter-rater reliability exercises'  are useful. 


Many of us have spoken about controlled vocabularies on the dialogue, ‬and I wanted to discuss some of the key steps that come after the development of the vocabulary itself (in case its of help to folks thinking about implementing such vocabularies in their own projects).

As we've said, coding is the process by which raw narrative data is classified in consistent and‭ ‬repeatable definitions to distil the narrative elements‭, ‬including witnesses‭, ‬victims‭, ‬perpetrators‭, ‬personal information‭, ‬and numbers‭, ‬locations and types of violations‭. 

Each project must develop a unique controlled vocabulary based on the specific nature of‭ ‬the information collected and the analytical objectives of the project‭. (‬Alternatively‭, ‬you‭ ‬can choose to use an existing controlled vocabulary such as the ones others have listed in‭ ‬blog posts on this dialogue‭.)

The task of reviewing narrative data and structuring it by coding it for certain information‭ ‬may seem straightforward‭, ‬but in fact we and our partners have found that people can‭ ‬often see different things in the same statement‭.

We like to joke on the team that if you collect 10‭ ‬human rights experts in a room and ask‭ ‬them to define a particular violation type‭, ‬they would probably each define it slightly‭ ‬differently‭. <wry smile>

In the same way‭, ‬if you get 10‭ ‬people together and ask them to use a controlled‭ ‬vocabulary to code human rights information‭, ‬they might each apply the vocabulary‭ ‬slightly differently and have disagreements‭. ‬A disagreement may be that Coder A saw 4‭ ‬abuses‭, ‬and Coder B only identified 3‭. ‬A disagreement may be that Coder A coded a‭ ‬particular incident as extra-judicial killing‭, ‬where Coder B coded it as disappearance‭. ‬Coder A may code an incident as rape‭, ‬where Coder B coded it as sexual assault‭. ‬Coder‭

A may code an incident as a disappearance‭, ‬where Coder B codes it as being two‭ ‬ذ‭ ‬disappearance and extra-judicial killing‭. ‬

It's important to be sure that your coding team agrees with one another on what a‭ ‬vocabulary term means and establish that everyone is applying it consistently to‭ ‬qualitative information‭. ‬Included in ensuring consistency is making sure to conduct inter‭-‬rater-reliability‭ (‬IRR‭) ‬exercises‭, ‬which measure the consistency with which the data entry‭ ‬team codes information‭, ‬thereby ensuring high data quality and therefore meaningful‭ ‬results‭. 

An IRR exercise can be simple‭. ‬Here's an example‭: ‬Let's say your project is collecting‭ ‬statements from individuals who have survived or witnessed‭ (‬or both‭) ‬human rights‭ ‬abuses‭. ‬You have developed a controlled vocabulary that meets your analytical‭ ‬objectives‭. ‬You have a coding team‭. 

The simplest exercise is to photocopy the same statement‭ (‬or same 5‭ statements‭), ‬hand‭ ‬them to each member of the team‭, ‬and ask them to code all of the human rights violations‭ ‬(‬referring to the controlled vocabulary‭). 

Afterwards‭, ‬review how often they agreed‭, ‬and how often they disagreed‭. ‬Use the findings of your IRR exercise to identify areas where the controlled vocabulary‭ ‬isn't clear‭. ‬Discuss the areas where the team disagreed‭. ‬Refine the vocabulary and/or do‭ ‬more training with the coders as necessary‭. ‬Then‭, ‬repeat the process‭.

Working towards high levels of IRR allow you to defend the findings of your analysis‭. ‬If‭ ‬you have high levels of agreement among the coding team you be confident that your‭ ‬project's coding is more than a collection of subjective viewpoints among the coding‭ ‬team‭.

When you think about developing a controlled vocabulary‭, ‬in order to ensure the quality‭ ‬of the data and facilitate consistent application of the definitions by your coding team‭, ‬every violation definition must satisfy the following five properties‭:

   * ‬Mutually exclusive‭: ‬No single violation‭ (‬or victim or perpetrator‭) ‬can fit into any two‭ ‬definitions in the controlled vocabulary

‭    * ‬Exhaustive‭: ‬A definition must exist for every possible violation that can occur in the‭ ‬situation being studied‭. (‬for example‭, ‬we often include‭ '‬Other‭' ‬and/or‭ '‬Unknown‭' ‬to‭ ‬cover unanticipated values‭.)‬

‭    * ‬Distinguished‭: ‬Each definition must have an explicit characteristic that distinguishes‭ ‬the violation/victim/perpetrator from all others in the controlled vocabulary‭.‬

‭    * ‬Exemplified‭: ‬Each definition must be accompanied by examples showing how to‭ ‬apply the definition in a specific situation‭.‬

‭    * ‬Countable‭: ‬Each definition must contain a counting rule explicitly stating how‭ ‬violations‭, ‬victims‭, ‬and perpetrators are enumerated‭.

After you develop the‭ '‬first draft‭' ‬of your controlled vocabulary‭ (‬or after you adopt an‭ ‬existing controlled vocabulary from the resources others have listed in various blog posts‭ ‬on this dialogue‭!), ‬please plan for a‭ '‬pilot testing‭' ‬period where you and your coding team‭ ‬go through an IRR process like the one described above‭. ‬That way you can refine the‭ ‬controlled vocabulary and everyone's understanding of how to apply it before you begin‭  the work of coding in earnest‭!

We also suggest doing IRR exercises periodically once the project has started as well‭, ‬especially if you hire new staff‭, ‬or a new data source is introduced‭, ‬or your vocabulary‭ ‬changes‭. (‬We do them regularly throughout our data analysis projects‭, ‬too‭.) 

Handheld Human Rights

For Digital Democracy, the issues of challenges at risk were a key stimulus for our Handheld Human Rights project.The idea is to take a situation with the extreme security concerns, like Burma, and make human rights more accessible and actionable.  

To document abuses, young people were entering the jungles with reems of paper, recording information, smuggling it out of the country at great risk and through the jungles with great difficulty, transcribing it, and processing all of it into a report perhaps 6 months to a year later. These same documentors were then asking to become Facebook friends with us.

We realized the need for more technology literacy, security and efficiency and started speaking with our local programmers, the All Burma Information Technology Student Union (ABITSU) to figure out how we could take open source solutions and localize them, plus what makes sense for their context. 

The result was finding the need for a secure internal chat that reached down to the equipment people have on the ground at a reasonable cost. SMS on mobiles was the solution. Pulling these into a secure map-based chat protocol made sense and for this we found GeoChat. It leverages existing security protocols and groups, but makes the conversation much faster, meaning it can be responded to and acted on.

Once the information is verified as safe enough to be public, we wanted to make sure that information was being shared amongst groups. Initially we found a frustration that two groups would be working down river from one another on HR abuses surrounding dam construction, but they had no idea about one anothers work. Creating one system that pulls 50 years of data onto a map and timeline makes it actionable for the community based organizations, researchers, reporters, and funders. Ushahidi was a great fit and it could be quickly translated into local languages, helping bridge some of the many divides that exist amongst groups that don't share a language, religion, geography, etc. but could have a mutual interest in working together if they see a benefit. 

Not reinventing the wheel is key, and there is already a lot of information available for the past, not only important info for the future. Working with systems like Benetech's Martus affords us the ability to pull in data that is solid, where private information is encrypted and public data is already verified. Much of the other information is in dead formats - PDFs or paper, and we're working with volunteers from around the world to process this.

New forms of documentation can't be overlooked either. When trying to secure a system and working with an insecure format (ie most mobiles, it's important to be creative. We are working with Nathan Frietas and his Guardian project to see how we can expand the reach of the project by securing individuals particpating. We've also incorporated smart pens like Livescribe, to work with actual handwriting and create forms so that nothing has to be transcribed. It also means working visually with interactive maps. I've written about this on this technology for HR on my blog.

Handheld Human Rights - Outline

View more presentations from Mark Belinsky.


For the future, we're excited to see how we can expand the scope, bringing in more international volunteers for crisis mapping, expanding local portals to the other borders, and working with additional partners. Let us know if you have any thoughts!

Online data security: geeky question

We see a lot of potential for online solutions, for databases or document storage solutions, as they allow sharing across geographical divides, and protect against physical attacks on premises.

But one problem is security, ie protection of sensitive information against unauthorized access. In particular the entry point to the online system via login and password.  Keyloggers or screenshot tools can be used to capture password information. This is the Achilles heel. 

Any ideas for a simple and low tech solution? Martus has the two-level solution, something you know (password) and something you have (keypair). How to implement this in an online solution?

One idea we have: a one time password system, meaning the users have their personal password, and a second password taken from a pre-printed list generated by a system. Feasible?

Another idea: to use the upcoming iPad as a means to interact with data. They are cheap and can be connected to an external keyboard. And I doubt there will be any keyloggers in the App store, and even if there were the iPad does not allow multitasking, so no spy apps in the background!

And ideas or suggestions? 

How do we secure the whole process of documentation?

Thanks for this great question, Daniel.  Though I can't address your specific question about finding a low-tech solution the keylogger issue, I wanted to share some good tools for activists interested in learning more about this security issue and others. 

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post on security, Tactical Tech and Frontline Defenders have put together a toolkit called Security-in-a-Box for human rights activists on digital security.  There is a chapter of this toolkit on Spyware - which is the more general term the type of malicious software that can track the work that you are doing on your computer (by recording the keys that you press, the movements of your mouse, pages you visit, etc) and sends it to people that shouldn't have it.  One of the tools that they recommend activists use is called Spybot, and anti-spyware software.

On a different note, I wonder if a tool like Tor that allows a user to surf the internet anonymously could be useful for human rights documentation work.  This is a software that you download on your computer and turn it on when you open your internet browser. Your IP address gets routed through servers throughout the world so it is impossible for someone to track your internet activity to your IP address (your computer). Would this help when uploading data to Martus, for example?

I also wanted to share a video of a presentation given by Ahmed Motala of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on security concerns for human rights workers. It is nice to hear that UNHCHR is taking these concerns very seriously.  I hope that they are working closely with Benetech and/or HURIDOCS!


More on Securing the Process

A few scattered points on this Sunday evening.


  • The Protektor Manual is an excellent resource for how to secure your data and communications on Windows, Mac or Linux. It is very up-to-date and covers Tor, TrueCrypt, OTR messaging, GPG and even ZFone for encrypted voice:
  • Tor should be used whenever possible, especially when working/traveling in countries known to employ heavy handed online surveillance technology. Any application which can use an HTTP or SOCKS proxy can work over the Tor network. The Tor Browser Bundle can be easily run off of a USB key and provides a clean copy of Firefox and Pidgen for instant messaging that automatically start up when you launch Tor. It works great and is available in many languages:
  • if you are on a computer that you are concerned might have a keystroke logger installed on it (say at an internet cafe), I would use an onscreen keyboard to type my password or other sensitive information. There is an usually an screen keyboard available (check accessories / accessibility tools) it is better to use that to click your password with a mouse than to type it in on the keyboard. You can even move the keyboard around on the screen between key clicks.
  • You can create a bootable CD-ROM or USB drive of an Ubuntu LiveCD, that when placed in a CD drive of pretty much any PC that is starting up, will launch into a perfectly clean and virus free version of Linux. Ubuntu is very user friendly and pretty much has all the apps you need to get online and communicate. This requires you to restart the machine, so it may not work for internet cafes, but it can work for your own Windows computer or a friends/colleagues machine you may be borrowing when you are on the go. Basically, you can switch to Linux for the important stuff, and then back to Windows for the day to day "infected" mode. More on Ubuntu LiveCD's here:


additional security thoughts

Vijaya (Jaya) Tripathi, Benetech

Great suggestions, Nathan! 

I have to admit, it gives me a lot of happiness to look at this blog and see how much people are engaging with the importance of electronic security, to protect both those working to document human rights as well as those trusting them with their experiences.

A few scattered thoughts from me as well:

- Martus is one way to encrypt and securely share information while also backing it up. Martus also has a virtual keyboard (appears on the screen and you click on the keyboard 'keys' to enter data) like the one Nathan describes. Although there are 'screenshot' keylogger apps which attempt to record what letters you are clicking on, they are much harder to get right, so using the virtual keyboard is a good step in the right direction. 

-There's something low-tech that is absolutely essential to keeping information secure - change passwords regularly! And make it tough to guess.

- Not sure if anyone has mentioned this yet, but Frontline is another group that provides information and trainings about how to secure human rights information. They provide a Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders

- Another key component is maintaining antivirus/malware/firewall
protection. Not only does that keep you safer from direct attacks, but
it also keeps your hardware running longer. I've worked with several
computers in the field that are nearly unusable, or later suffer
irreversible damage due to virus ridden systems. There are free options
available (such as AVG) as well as software you have to pay for.

- Do regular back ups of existing data. I know this has been mentioned elsewhere but it bears repeating. We've heard of real-life examples of data lost to theft, volcanic eruption, fires, eaten by termites, decay (and exposure to elements), loss (it was on a CD or in paper files which have been misplaced), hard drive failures, forgotten passwords, expired email accounts, etc. As others have noted, it's best to do back ups to an offsite location. Martus is one way to automate backups to a remote server (the Martus software and Martus server storage space is free).

- Linux-based systems such as Ubuntu are _much_ less vulnerable to traditional threats than Windows systems. Definitely check out Nathan's suggestion in the earlier post.

Managing and Preserving Data of Human Rights Crimes

A crime occurs today; our technology documents it and generates evidence that can be immediately analyzed and disseminated. But typically (as is the case today with Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, and many other places where communties are seeking justice for past crimes) only a long way down the line, years possibly decades later, is there is a chance for justice. Will the evidence we generate through our new documentation strategies be around to support prosecution and attempts at accountability?

I've been reading with great interest everyone's comments on the opportunities afforded by new documentation technologies, from Nathan's discussion about cell phones and PDA's that generate on-the-ground data to the software tools such as Martus and HURIDOCS that manage, organize, and help interpret that data. As an archivist working with human rights organizations to preserve legacy data, I feel we need to match the need for immediate and mobile data about human rights violations and crimes with a need for stable data structures that will survive the pace of technological obsolescence and the vagaries of post-custodial information management. Whatever technology we are using today we can be sure that we will be using new technology tomorrow, and we may all be sharing information but who is taking responsibility for its long-term survival?

A case in point: in 2006 Duke's Archive for Human Rights received the legacy collection of an NGO that worked with the International Criminal Court  to collect, catalog, and provide access to audio and video evidence of genocide and human right violations in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and other areas of the world. The NGO operated from 1993 to about 2003 and collected over 10,000 tapes and developed a robust database that contained vital information needed by prosecutors: names of witnesses, locations, date, creator, rights owners, controlled vocabulary of human rights crimes, etc. As recently as 2006 the ICC contacted Duke seeking evidence in an important prosecution - this was over a decade after the evidence had been originally generated!

The challenges: The catalog data was stored and managed in a FileMaker Pro database. Since the original creation of the database FileMaker Pro has undergone something like 5 to 7 iterations; in order to simply gain access to the data we had to come up with a strategy of migrating the data forward and migrating the software backwards a few generations - this worked but just barely. We have noted content loss and file corruption and plan on creating a more stable structure for the collection metadata. The tapes themselves are now coming close to the end of their stable life-time. The long-term solution for both preservation and access is digitizing the tapes. We estimate that digitizing ~4,000 of the tapes at the lowest acceptable codex will require about 29TB of storage and cost about $50,000 a year to maintain....forever.

Some human rights organizations are thinking about these issues today. ICTJ's recent publication Documenting Truth is a case in point, but to tackle the challenges of preserving the digital records created by new and ever-changing technologies we really need to get the people designing and using the tools today to incorporate preservation and stability into their design process. How can this happen and where do we begin? I would love to begin such a dialogue between the archives community and human rights practioners.

Keeping the data viable

I believe you've raised a very good point -- that we need to think about maintaining the data we collected in perpetuity.  And how do we do this when the technology for data storage is constantly changing?

I don't have any easy answers.  I'm storing data in paper form (large piles of years-old surveys), in digital form (on a hard drive and back-up drive), and in summarized form (the final data taken from forms that have been destroyed).  In an ideal situation, we would have whatever instruments/questionnaires were used to gather data digitalized and stored on a semi-permanent media with an upgrade cycle, as well as the data in a csv format (which has remained usable over many iterations of technology).  Even this simple combination can be expensive to achieve, and doesn't account for audio and visual records.

Perhaps this is the next big challenge for the HURIDOCS and Martus folks -- creating a platform that is sustainable over time to capture and archive these various data sources in a meaningful structure for future use? 

Challenges of Long-Term Viability of Data

Jana - All the issues you mention:

  •  the variety of formats to consider (both analog and digital);
  • migration of digital records to keep up with the evolution of the technological platforms that support them;
  •  the appraisal of records;
  •  the transient nature of human rights data as well as human rights organizations;
  •  and the expenses associated with all these preservation practices;

are being tackled by many human rights practitionors in partnership with archives and archivists. 

There are different models out there on how the human rights community can engage in archiving and preservation.  Some organizations such as WITNESS maintain their own media archives. Some of the larger government and international human rights organizations, such as the UN bodies that are involved in human rights work or the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, have gone this way as well.  In other cases human rights documentation is being preserved and archived in partnership with major universities such as Duke, Columbia, UT Austin, and UConn.  Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ICTJ, CIP, WOLA, and others NGO's have entered into these kinds of partnerships to preserve their records and data.  Another arena of human rights work that is taking preservation seriously are the many international bodies and tribunals, such as the ICTY and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, being established to prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

One thing that seems clear is that preservation in this digital age is going to be a challenge.  These challenges include:

  • The amount of digital data and records being generated;
  • The fugitive nature of these records and their technological context;
  • The scarce resources available to grass-roots organizations and human rights practioners in most of the world;
  • The often sensitive nature of human rights data.

For this reason we need to implement technologies that are designed to produce viable, manageable, sustainable records.

Re: Challenges of Long-Term Viability of Data

I want to highlight Patrick's point about partnerships with archival organizations: In the past archivists only appeared in the picture when records became "inactive" (i.e. not in everyday operational use) primarily due to the logistics of appraisal, transfer, and access. This was usually fine for rather stable media such as paper and film but the rapid pace of technology makes this more perilous today. Organizations can partner with archival organizations that can provide assistance for preservation and head-off potential hazards as they arise. Also, transfers of materials can happen more frequently which can assist in the preservation process.

Some of the best things that can be done for preservation include:

  • System backups. (We can't preserve anything lost to system failure)
  • Well documented open systems & formats. Should a technology lose favor (which they all do at some point) good documentation helps ensure the data can be understood and either migrated or emulated in the future.
  • Consider system migration paths. Some software systems make it easy to ingest and create data but do not put much though into getting it back out. Consider the question: how will I be able to get back out the data I put in? 

 Note that when I mention "open systems" I don't mean insecure. The word "encryption" scares a lot of archivists and preservationists because if they keys are lost so is the data. However, encryption with strong authentication measures is the best way to protect sensitive information. Encryption only means loss if the keys are lost. Early and frequent transfer of unencrypted copies to an archival partner can help prevent that loss or you could consider giving them a copy of the key.

What are the apprach to transfer these tools to the grassroot


At the first step I would like to thank you the facilitators and organizers of this online discussion on this important topic, which is the key tool for protection of human rights. And it’s very interesting topic for me as I am working for an organization who building the capacity of the local CSOs in human rights advocacy in Afghanistan, where the documentation and monitoring are playing the key role in whole advocacy process and one the proiority need of the CSOs here.

Reading the voluble inputs, comments of the expert practitioners and researcher in this discussion regarding different ways and approached for human rights documentation and also the material resources and manuals available in different websites, which are credible resources.

My comment or questin is more relevan with last point of this discussion, regarding the approaches  and content and process , there are very much  interesting inputs from the experts, but my cmment or question  will be on how these  approaches and method  and tools for documentation to be reached to the organizations  who are working at the community level and every day facing with violation to be documented, who cannot speak English or not have access to computer,nor have access to  technical support or training?

So what would be the approaches and strategies if we want to localize these tools and resources to those who are working at the community level with limited access to information technology or other tools.



"Tools" versus "Technology"


A great question.  The featured resource practitioners for this dialog all have good access to technology -- that is, to Internet, computers, etc.  So what does a dialog on human rights documentation mean in a context where there are no computers -- and possible no electricity -- and no cell phones, etc.?  

Here we need to make a distinction between tools and technology.  Several posts in this dialog are about basic paper-based tools -- for example, what type of questionnaire/statement form should be used when recording data collected about human rights violations.  

When I'm working in the field with documenters/interviewers that only have access to paper and pencil, I try to relay the following ideas.  In doing so, I try to provide the local practitioners with tools -- questionnaire formats, skills in interviewering, and knowledge of best practices -- that allow them to collect the highest quality data possible.

1. Record the story, not your interpretation of the story.  The job of the interviewer is to make sure the details of the story are transmitted accurately.  To do that well often requires training on how to not lead the respondent to a particular answer/statement, how to appear empathetic and build rapport no matter what the interviewers personal feeling are about the event, and so on.  There are interviewer-training techniques that are appropriate (when tailored) for any culture/language.  For example, making interviewers aware of what their body language says and how their voice control affects the person being interviewed can affect how well information is collected.

2. Make a safe space for the respondent. The respondent might have a story to tell that is very frightening to relay -- for example, women that have experienced sexual abuses are blamed for the abuse in some cultures, making it very difficult for them to report what happened.  Interviewers can be trained in what to say, and how to say it, to make the safest environment for the respondent.

3. Make sure all the details are there.  Using a form that has spaces for particular aspects of the violation--who, what, when, where, etc.--helps interviewers make sure they get all of the pertinent pieces of information related to the violation.  

Yes, there are particular technology-based tools that are great when you have access to them.  But the very important themes that underlie the discussions here related to how to collect information that is of high quality can apply whether there is a computer handy or not.  If there is no mobile phone, use a traditional camera or tape recorded with batteries.  If those aren't available, record the information on paper.  While technology can make it easier to gather and analyze high-quality data, it is not required to do so.   And it is possible to have great technology available and still either collect bad data or analyze good data badly.  The important take-home message, I believe, has to do with understanding how to collect human rights violations data well and how to use those data appropriately.


Testimony: Why victims want to speak.

Jeanne Sarson, Canada

Dear Patrick,

Although this discourse focuses on human rights violations in the public sphere I and a colleague have, since 1993, had the experience of listening and assisting mainly women speak and recover from being victims of torture inflicted by non-state actors in the so-called domestic sphere. The conflict that produces torture in the home has unique considerations because the torturer is the most ‘trusted’ person known to the victim. The gravest social difference is the patriarchal divide that exists nationally and globally that recognizes state inflicted torture as a specific and distinct human rights offence and crime whereas non-state inflicted acts of torture are often globally/nationally invisibilized by misnaming non-state actor torture as abuse or an assault of some kind.

Saying this, I will however respond to the question of “why victims want to speak” because the reasons have contextual familiarities, whether the torture is state or non-state inflicted. The reasons are generally about attempting to rebuild a more resilient and respectful relationship with Self as well as building socio-cultural-relational security. My points come from being present with women therefore my response needs to identify this sex/gendered reality

Women's reasons for needing to tell are to:

1.     Undo dehumanization – To be victimized such as being tortured is dehumanizing, to tell and be listened to means that someone cares, cares enough to listen respectfully.

2.     Undo objectification – Which is the feeling/perception that comes when one's humanity is denied and one becomes an object to the perpetrator(s); being listened to as a person sends the intrapersonal question of: “I’m being seen as a person first versus just the horror endured”.   

3.     Break their sense of emotional aloneness – That is, without anyone to help them at the time of their victimization can leave them trapped in an ongoing sense of emotional aloneness, therefore to be able to speak and be respectfully heard helps to break this emotional aloneness.

4.     Break their sense of powerlessness – That is, overpowered, say in a gang raping ordeal, they are often powerless even to speak, therefore to be able to speak and be heard can help to re-stabilize their empowerment and recapture some fragment of intra-personal control.

5.     Restore a sense of human dignity – Which can occur when listened to, heard/understood and believed.

6.     Help formulate language – Victimization that is unconscionable is often initially felt as beyond human language to describe, given an opportunity to tell can help to increase her ability to feel competent to speak/describe her ordeals.

7.     Restore personhood worthiness – Telling and being heard/understood sends the message that as a human person one is worthy of being listened to, therefore builds Self-worth.

8.     Heal humiliation – Given the right to speak, be heard and be understood says that it is not her fault, that she is not to blame.

9.     Heal 'something must be wrong with me' - When one woman hears that other women have endured similar ordeals this helps break an internalized belief that she did not cause the perpetrator to do as he/she did.

10.   Break the silence and fear of stigmatization – Social reject hurts and causes pain similar to physical pain because social inclusion is a human survival need; exclusion also, simply put, hurts our brains as well as our bodies and our spirits.

11.   Achieve both personal and social justice – Being able to tell, beheard and understood is essential to healing.

12.   See the perpetrator(s) held accountable – Promotes the right to Self-justice and/or prevention of others being harmed.

13.   Stimulate motivation/activism – If personal and social justice occurs from this sometimes will flow the decision to become involved in some form of activism; helping others has been shown to promote wellness.

14.   Relieve survivor guilt – Telling and social activism can provide a sense of gaining justice for those who did not survive and promote a 'reason' why one survived and others did not.

15.   Promote women’s human rights equality – For women telling,  knowingly/unknowingly, is a challenge to the socio-cultural misogynistic-based patriarchal abuse of power with sexualized victimization being so predominately gender/sex based.  

These are some insights based on my and my colleague's experiences. Some reasons for telling are intra- and inter-personnel, others are social reasons why a person, a woman, wants to speak, be heard and understood. I include being heard and understood as two separate critical components to telling because a person can tell and be told they are being listened to but not really be understood. My colleague and I are told repeatedly that “you really understand”, so this is important feedback to note. Also, it is important to note that telling can come with risks because the ‘listener’ may become seduced by the content, may become voyeuristic in their questions, or the listener's non-verbals might send a message that they cannot cope which then silences the woman’s need to tell all, to tell the minute details.

I share this input in case it may offer some insights as to why people want to tell.


Persons Against Ritual Abuse-Torture and Other Forms of Non-State Actor Torture


Phone/Fax: 1-902-895-6659


Working with a network of NGO

Agnieszka Raczynska of Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos, Mexico

Thank you all, for the great comments, I have been reading and learning from all of you.

I work for a NGO network in Mexico (Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos “Todos los derechos para todas y todos”) and we have developed our own monitoring system (Sistema de Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos, based on the one that  Huridocs has). It took us two years but finally we are getting to the final stage of the project. In our network there are 68 NGO that work all over the country, and all are different. Some of them have only one or two people working, other have a large staff, some work in the mountain of Guerrero, some in Mexico City, some in Chiapas, they specialize on different topics or rights (women, indigenous people, labor rights, access to justice, etc), and of course a large amount of the NGO document human rights violations and use different methods for it or have no method but steel collect valuable data.

Our main goal was to have a system that any organization could use, big or small, and those they would not need Internet to access it. We have been dealing with interesting stuff. Some of our colleagues are resilient to star “using” the system because they think that because it is a database it is something very sophisticated. It is not. Once they try it, they love it and continue using it in their every day work as a tool that helps to store and systematize all the information on human rights violations. It is difficult for some ONG that do not use a lot of technology in their every day work to start doing it because they think that this will be very difficult, and that they will have to hire someone with special skills. So we’ve been working to develop something easy to install, to crate new users and passwords, to login, to do backups, etc. It has been a challenge.

There is a question also of the “double work”. A very small amount of organization has a database. The one who have, they have been exploring the new tool and fill very happy with it, but the ones that haven’t use a database until now, are saying that it will take the double amount of time because they have to put first all the information on paper (as they always have) and then put it on the database. And this will take twice the time. But when you show them all the outputs (reports) they will have from all the information they storage in the database they get really exited and are much more motivated. Eventually they understand that this will save them time in the future.

There is also the issue of sharing information. This is not an easy one. There are NGO that are very resilient on sharing their information with others, not only for safety reasons but also there is the issue of how this information will be use in the future, who will get the credit, etc. Some users are saying that they will use the local database but are not sure about sending the information and sharing it with others.

There is also the big challenge of working with our “system developer” of the project. It has been a challenge to find a common language between us and fulfill the needs that we have and understand the possibilities of developing or transforming our ideas in something tangible.

It is a challenge to fulfill the expectations of a network of NGO, believe me. It has been a great learning for all of us and I hope we will get to the goal of having 68 users this year and be able to collect data from all the NGO. This will be great because there is no other HR network in Mexico and all this information is very valuable and we all have a lot of possibilities to use is and publicize it.

Saludos desde México!

Hosting multiple secure instances of the data to survive crisis

Agnieszka -

Thanks for your post - I'd be very interested in hearing more about the database platform created by your organization.  Is it open-source software?  Is it scalable?  Is the data centralized or distributed?  Are you partnering with an organization outside Mexico to backup the system periodically?

Another point to help you sell this to your constituents:  if you can host multiple secure instances of the data in remote storage, then your data will be more likely to survive a crisis, whether this be a flood, earthquake, confiscation, or outright attack/destruction.  The current situation in Honduras and Haiti, and in 2009, the seizure of the records of the Russian human rights group, Memorial,  show that these are very real possibilities.

Re: Patricks questions on the Red Monitorig System

Agnieszka Raczynska of Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos, Mexico

Thank you for all the interest in our project, and all your questions!

First of all, I want to tell that we have been working with a great teem (Adolfo Dunayevich and Aida María Noval). Adolfo Dunayevich has been the application developer and you can contact him for more questions about the application:

  • Is it open-source software?

The whole application is strictly built on open source software: Postgresql + Python + other open source libraries.

  • Is it scalable? 

Postgresql is scalable. The application can run on a pentum III/256 mb ram

  • Is the data centralized or distributed?

Each organization runs its own installation.  The application has export/import capabilities, in order to have consolidation functionality at the whole HR network.

  • Are you partnering with an organization outside Mexico to backup the system periodically?

On the technical ground, the application can dump the whole database. Is matter of each member organization to setup that kind of agreement.

Saludos - que buen trabajo!


Saludos desde Chicago!

Your work with the Red sounds fascinating. It is really impressive  that  you have created a unified data monitoring system for 68 Mexican NGOs.

That  is no mean feat.

Do you have a copy of the forms you use? Do you gather testimonies as well as case specific violation data?

When you describe the problems of sharing information, is that because of security issues and contact information? Or, is it just a lack of confidence? Do you present general reports based on the data from all the partner NGOs?

Can one NGO access information collected by another regarding a similar violation?

Also, we have a manual on using the Inter-American System of Human Rights as a tool for advocacy with a special focus on indigenous issues in Mexico. If you'd like  acop please email me at

It's in Spanish.

Re: Saludos - que buen trabajo!

Agnieszka Raczynska of Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos, Mexico

Do you have a copy of the forms you use? Yes, you can contact me at: .  Do you gather testimonies as well as case specific violation data? We gather case specific violation data.

When you describe the problems of sharing information, is that because of security issues and contact information? Or, is it just a lack of confidence?

I would say that is both: in some cases is security issues but mostly is lack of confidence. Also, collective decisions about sharing information haven’t been made yet. We will have to discuss these issues along the way and come to collective agreements on issues of concern.

Do you present general reports based on the data from the entire partner NGOs? In the future, the goal is to be able to present general reports on the human rights situation in Mexico based on the information the NGO send to the consolidated database. How it works now, for example for the reports that we present don the Inter American Commission of Human Rights or the UN, it takes us a lot of time to gather all the information from the NGO. Also, each NGO can issue their own reports for their own projects or activities. I must clarify that at this stage of the project not all the NGO are using the system, we are trying to get as much users as possible.

Can one NGO access information collected by another regarding a similar violation? No, at this initial stage one NGO cannot directly access information of other NGO. This is also part of the issue of sharing information and having agreements.  It can be done in the future. 

Thank you so much for all your questions! I woul love to hear more from you and your work. 




Dear Agnieszka:

We have also done quite a bit of work using the Inter-American System.

Where our partner NGOs have presented petitions or public audiences (audiencias publicas), the material they present is gathered by each group using their own systems. Your work can likely provide enormous help for aiding orgnaizations around Mexico to work cooperatively.

As you know the Inter-American system is really slow. However, we have seen some impressive victories as a result of the politicla pressure that comes from public audiences, as well as from site visits by the Commission.

In this discussion earier, I posted a brief overview of our methodology for gathering testimonies in a conflict zone - in this case, Iraq.

We found the use of social networks and story-telling to be a very powerful means of documenting violations.

I have lots of material on  how we trained interviwer, set up the database, moved information around the country, etc.

There is much to discuss..

Challenges of working with a network to collect data


Thank you for sharing your very inspiring work with 68 organizations in Mexico to create a network for collecting and sharing information. Your comment, "It is a challenge to fulfill the expectations of a network of NGOs, believe me." really made me think of another collective of NGOs that successfully created shared documentation and a growing archive of information.

Memoria Abierta in Argentina has created a collective archive among 7 organizations (far fewer than the number you are working together with to coordinate information). Memoria Abiera shared their experience and on-going process in a tactical notebook called, "Open Memory: Using inter-institutional cooperation to facilitate access to human rights"

Here is the link to the Spanish: Memoria Abierta: Una experiencia de Coordinación Interinstitucional para facilitar el acceso a la información sobre Derechos Humanos 

They outlined a number of challenges that I'm sure you can relate to as well:

The need to Improve the actual state of the information/archives:

  • organization;
  • the physical space dedicated to archives;
  • the availability of technological resources.

The need to deal with these varying conditions required several strategies

  • increasing awareness of archival preservation methods (environmental conditions);
  • providing or increasing the number of computers; and 
  • designing new work spaces for archiving.

Tensions in the coordination processes itself - including:

  • differing opinions within organizations with respect to collective decisions;
  • changes to long-established documentary practices; 
  • the diverse criteria related to archival access and documentation, and others.

I hope you will continue to share the process and outcomes of the efforts of the Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos in Mexico. We all have a great deal to learn from your experiences! I hope you are able to answer some of the many questions asked by Daniel. 


Hi Aga, thanks for

Hi Aga, thanks for describing your project in such detail!

Its an ambitious effort to unite so many NGOs around the same tool, and this really deserves a good case study, because there is a lot to learn from your experience.

I have the impression that one of the most important impacts of the project is the strengthening of the NGOs concerned, in their capacity to manage data, and in their understanding of how IT, and applying a methodology systematically, can help.

Using a "who did what to whom" system, like you have chosen to do, is always a strong learning experience for an NGO. Because its not that easy to read into a narrative and identify the rights affected, and the violations! Its only when you really get down to it any analyse cases, that you start to discover all sorts of questions that you never thought of before!!

Who did what to whom... it sounds easy, its not. Its easy to try out: take a case, and try to map out who did what to whom, using a table: victim, act, perpetrator(s), place and date. Then ask your colleagues to do the same. Do you get the same results??? I am sure that you will have some very interesting and hot debates!!!! Just try!

And if these questions are frequently debated within the documentation team, then you reach a consensus on how to record your cases consistently, meaning analyst A will come to the same conclusions as analyst B. Consistent data makes good data.

I learn something new from the specific stories that we analyze that are usually submitted by the participants, every time we do a training.

Assessing impact

Thanks to all for the interesting and stimulating discussion.

I am currently looking at frameworks that could be used by NGOs for the evaluation
of their documentation systems. This work is intended to address the problems of both formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation is done during the system implementation and looks at issues such as functionality and usability. Summative is done after the system/database has been in use for a period of time; the objective is to provide an overall assessment of the benefits and costs.

The latter is also about sharing lessons learned – identifying what may be useful outside an organization; providing the benefit of others’ experience to NGOs embarking on their own documentation project.

In terms of evaluation, the realtime operational model has the advantage of producing quicker results (or not). But if the end use is as described by Jana - to prove the existence of human rights violations and to document them for historical or legislative purposes – the real impact (and scrutiny) of the data comes later. And the impact of an NGO’s investment in time and resources is not as visible to them in the short term.

Many of the points raised in the discussions are pertinent to the issue of course. But I’d be interested in any further comments the participants might have. What approaches should an NGO adopt in order to assess the value in their documentation work?

Good question: I think

Good question: I think there are several aspects to think about here.

First, what types of data are going to be incorporated into the documentation system(s)?  For example, random sample survey data quality is judged on several factors.  There is the quality of the sample frame, or list of individual units that were randomly selected to be part of the group that provides data.  There is the quality of the interviews, the amount of nonresponse (to one question or the whole survey), and so on.  In terms of the data stored, both the data collected via the survey and the paradata -- that is, the data about how the data were collected -- should be kept.  That data includes the length of the interview, who the interviewer was, what day the interview occurred on, if others were present during the interview, if the interviewer noted anything significant about the interview, and so on.  I imagine a complete set of data related to a random sample survey of human rights abuses might contain the scanned forms, the data in a database, and the paradata.  

In the case of video/digital recordings of testimonies, I'd imagine important data to store would include where/when the testimony occurred, and other related information.  But I am certainly no expert on those types of data.

Of course, there are lots of other types of data.  An overall assessment of a project, I think, would include an assessment of the types of data collected (do they, together, provide good coverage of the human rights abuses?), the quality of each type of data, and the paradata associated with each type of data, as well as an assessment of the archiving/storage technique both for safety/confidentiality concerns and also permanency.

Perhaps the archivists could jump in here?


Documenting Human Rights Violations



This is the process of recording or
capturing an event or an occurrence for the purpose of using it as
an advocacy tool ,an educational tool or a tool to create change

Determining what kinds of
information to collect

This is dictated by the kind of
violation being experienced , timing ( eg during a civil strife
within a country or during an invasion from a neighbouring country),
the type of perpetrators for instance is it the state ( which in
most cases has the machinery for stifling all sorts of
investigations especially through disappearance of the
investigators in a given case), the number of people experiencing
the violations ( if the number is large then the information to be
collected will be bulky), the terrain also affects information
collection in terms of accessibility to the victims, equipments
such as computers also affects information collection especially when
it comes to recording.Sensitivity of the information and whether the
information to be collected is deemed as “top secret” , this can
present problems and risks for the investigator collecting the
information .

Ways to acquire, store and organize the

Ways through which the information can
be acquired are through the use of videos, use of Dictaphone for
taping orally from the respondents, organizing discussion groups
with victims of a violation such as police perpetrated violence in a
given area .The information can also be got from key informants in a
given situation such as the provincial administration if it concerns
brutality among Administration Police, the area chief if it
concerns illegal swoops etc, information can also be got from
talking to people working in various departments related to where
the violation has taken place .

The best place to store the information
would be either in video tapes and having back ups of the information
stored elsewhere. The information can also be stored in computers but
with back ups in case of a virus attack of the computer system ,
reprogramming or mistaken deletion of the information.

Purposes of documentation

We document to advocate for the rights
of the marginalized and those who are going through violations.

We also document inorder to have
evidence to a claim for instance if our claim is that children are
not going to school because there are no schools in the area, then
we document the evidence that children are actually not going to
school and that schools are not available in an area.If we talk about
brutality among the police force , we document inorder to have
evidence to show the brutality.

Documentation is also a process of
raising the consciousness of the affected people to make them start
questioning why they are undergoing the brutality , start to
question why they are going through the brutality

Risks , challenges and opportunities
of documentation

The risks of documentation include the
information being considered top secret such that one becomes hunted
down by the government or the perpetrators of the violence.This puts
the investigator at a risk of execution or being injured depending on
the type of information they have access to.

The other risk of documentation is
abrupt loss of the information either through wrongful or malicious
deletion, computer corruption due to a virus, accidents such as
intrusion and vandalism.

Challenges of documentation are living
in a country where the freedom of information is repressed or where
various Acts have been put in place to deny the public or any
investigator the right to access information from various sources.

The other challenge is the lack of up
to date equipments ,an organization may wish to document rights
violations but not have the necessary equipments or the knowledge on
how to document, what to document and when to document and how to go
about searching for information

Opportunities that exist for
documentation are when a country has a constitutional review process
such that a new constitution is in process of being put in place ,
people are bound to become more vigilante to observe which rights
have not been adequately addressed by the constitution.

The other opportunity is when a new
government is in power, in many cases during campaigns parties give
out manifestos with all sorts of goodies , so when it comes maybe to
midterm into their term of in the last leg of the given governments'
term then documentation can be done to take stock of what that
particular government has done vis -a -vis its party manifesto.

Thank you

Zico Ameca and Leonida Odongo

Ebony Youth and Orphans Support
Initiative Kenya

P.O Box 17237 00510


Very Interesting information shared

Thanks for sharing such a useful information, will be checking out more from yours.

Western Advanced Central University | Western Advanced Central University | Western Advanced Central University


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