CHRGJ panel of human rights investigators discusses challenges

Photo of Anna NeistatPhoto of Ben MajekodunmiPhoto of Margaret Satterthwaite '99At a March 31 panel discussion, “The Challenges of Human Rights Fact-Finding,” hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) and moderated by CHRGJ program director Veerle Opgenhaffen, four human rights investigators talked about their experiences and challenges in bringing injustice to light.

There is no universal definition of “fact-finding,” said Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law and CHRGJ faculty director and chair, and the process “varies pretty dramatically from one context and one role to another.” As the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Alston said, his role was “very constrained,” and he does relatively little original fact-finding; on average, his visit to a given country lasts no more than 10 days. Much of his preparation occurs beforehand, when he combs over data from non-governmental organizations. The aim of his investigations is “giving a certain credibility to facts that have usually been discovered on the ground by local or international NGOs.” A major constraint on Alston’s job, he said, is the fact that he must be invited officially by a country’s government, and he does not typically receive invitations from those nations whose human-rights violations are among the most egregious.

Anna Neistat described her experiences as a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the NGOs on which Alston depends for information. It can be challenging, she said, to find ways to enter certain countries for fact-finding purposes, but there is no other way to get the necessary information, since HRW uses only firsthand data: “The idea is that we can stand by every single word that we say in our reports, that nothing in our reports is based on information received from other sources unless we specify that.” The accumulation of that information entails risks for HRW’s sources, she said, including witnesses and local NGOs. Neistat mentioned her investigations in Sri Lanka, where HRW employees took extraordinary precautions in case their information was confiscated: “We spent an enormous amount of time making sure that we had nothing on our computers or phones, that all the notes we had were scanned every day and saved on our remote driver, so we had absolutely nothing on us. It’s very hard to ensure that there’s absolutely nothing compromising.”

Alston has often had to contend with less than friendly governments. One Brazilian official alleged that Alston had declared himself an expert on the country after spending only a few days there. “I wouldn’t have chosen to go to a country,” he said, “and, more importantly, the government wouldn’t have caved in to let me into the country had those NGOs not built up fairly substantial dossiers indicating that there were genuine problems. Even though I’m only there for a limited period of time, I can actually do rather a lot in terms of gathering together, synthesizing, and forcing government ministers and others to confront information which has otherwise not been taken very seriously…. Generally governments are affronted by the public criticism, and if I haven’t been fairly critical then my mission has not been very successful.”

Ben Majekodunmi, U.N. special adviser to the secretary general on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities and a specialist on human rights monitoring, has worked in human rights hotspots such as Rwanda, Darfur, Nepal, and Lebanon, and reflected on the complications of publicly criticizing one’s host government when that government can easily deny critical access to officials and locations in retaliation. It becomes necessary to balance the integrity of the mission and the need to obtain data, Majekodunmi said: “These kinds of calculations begin to come into play as soon as one has a longer-term mandate or a more multipronged mandate.”

Sometimes it boils down to a basic question of resources, said Professor Margaret Satterthwaite ’99, CHRGJ faculty director, who worked as a human rights investigator for the Haitian National Truth Commission in 1995. “We supposedly had all of the capacity of the government on our side and we still had significant problems,” she said; the government was too poor to finance some of the commission’s bare necessities, including water and housing. Satterthwaite also described how, when her investigation group’s sole means of security, remote radio communication, proved a technological failure, she made a show of pretending to check back in with home base via her useless walkie-talkie: “I was the security policy.”

Security has been of heightened concern since the 2003 assassination in Baghdad of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Sérgio Vieira de Mello, Alston said, but the fact that security details appointed by host governments would interfere with the confidentiality of his investigations is a major complicating factor. He had to cancel a visit to a Brazilian favela, he said, after receiving a warning that he might be killed. But he asserted that the greatest risks of fact-finding are borne by the local NGOs and witnesses brave enough to testify; in the aftermath of his trip to Kenya, the police and military launched a major harassment campaign that has resulted in deaths. “I had a very clear obligation to ensure that I do everything I could,” Alston said, “but it amounts to very little when you’ve got a government which is utterly determined and an international community which is not prepared to put much pressure on.”