Since the 1960s and the origins of the modern human rights movement, human rights organizations have produced their own research. In-depth and well-documented reports, replete with testimonial evidence and analysis of government policy and practice, are the stock-in-trade product of human rights organizations. They serve as the basis of lobbying and campaign efforts, and they provide the underpinnings of organizational reputation and credibility.
Human rights organizations invented the genre of human rights research. It typically resembles evidence gathered for a legal argument rather than analysis in the tradition of social science. Human rights organizations do not seek to describe general social conditions; rather, the main objective of human rights reporting is to document patterns of human rights violations and expose the perpetrators, institutions and policies that facilitate abuse.
Amnesty International created prototypes for human rights reporting in the 1960s, gathering detailed information on the situation of individual prisoners of conscience and the circumstances of their incarceration. Prisoners of conscience are people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs or factors of their identity and who have not advocated violence. Within a year of its founding, AI had documented the “cases” of some 1200 prisoners. In 1962 it authorized its first in-country research mission (to Ghana), and in 1965 it released its first thematic report (on prison conditions in Portugal, South Africa, and Romania).
International human rights organizations today produce as many as 100 detailed reports per year, in addition to annual reports on the human rights practices of countries and news releases published on a daily basis. Mike McClintock describes the origins of human rights research methodology and its evolution through the 1980s. Since that time there have been important developments in this methodology–including technological advances, forensic analysis, and sensitivity to the handling of personal information–but the basic approach described by McClintock continues to inform research reports issued by Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Fédération International des Droits de l’Homme and numerous other human rights organizations in addition to Amnesty International. The methodology developed by human rights organizations also provides guidance for human rights monitoring under the aegis of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Human rights reports typically refer to existing legal standards or, where existing standards are lacking, they point to human rights norms and the need for new laws and policy. Increasingly, human rights organizations eschew a “victims” approach in favor of more inclusive involvement of those who have suffered abuse. The Irish section of Amnesty International, for example, has created an “experts by experience” group to advance its work on human rights and mental health.
For more information:
Mike McClintock, who has worked in the human rights field for more than 30 years at organizations like Human Rights First, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, describes the core tenants of human rights research methodology in his narrative, The Standard Approach to Human Rights Research.
International Standards and Guidelines (from IGOs and NGOs)
- United Nations, “Istanbul Protocol: Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” 1999.
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring, Professional Training. Series No. 7, 2001. (Note: Provides practical guidance principally for the conduct of human rights monitoring in United Nations field operations.)
- International Bar Association: Human Rights Institute, Guidelines on International Human Rights Fact-Finding Visits and Reports (“Lund-London Guidelines”), 1 June 2009. (Note: The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute in conjunction with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, launched this set of human rights fact-finding guidelines during a conference at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, London, on 1 June 2009. The guidelines are the result of several years’ work and wide consultation. They arose out of concern that, despite there being no agreed international standards for human rights fact-finding reporting, such reports are frequently referred to by courts and tribunals as evidence of the facts alleged in them, as well as by governments, NGOs and other interested people. The guidelines aim to fill this gap by setting an agreed international standard of good practice in the conduct of fact-finding visits and in the compilation of reports. More information is available on the website http://www.factfindingguidelines.org.)
- International Commission of Jurists, Trial Observation Manual, 2002. (Note: Intended as a practical tool for ICJ trial observers. The manual incorporates insights from similar guides developed by the UN and other NGOs and specifically addresses instances where the independence or impartiality of judges and lawyers is threatened or fair standards are not guaranteed.)
- International Law Association. “The Belgrade International Rules of Procedure for International Human Rights Fact-Finding Missions,” in American Journal of International Law 75, No. 1 (1981): 163-165.
- Human Rights Watch. “Our Research Methodology.”
On human rights research and reporting, generally
- Franck, Thomas M. and H. Scott Fairley. “Procedural Due Process in Human Rights Fact-Finding by International Agencies.” The American Journal of International Law 74, no. 2 (1980): 308-345.
- Groome, Dermot. The Handbook of Human Rights Investigation. Human Rights Press, 2000.
- Larson, Egon. A Flame in Barbed Wire: The Story of Amnesty International. New York: F. Mueller, 1978. (Note: Includes description of research missions carried out in AI’s early years.)
- McClintock, Michael. “Establishing Accountability for State Violence.” In Human Rights in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Challenge, edited by Kathleen Mahoney. Martinus Nijhoff, 1993.
- McClintock, Michael. “Tensions Between Assistance and Protection: A Human Rights Perspective.” In Humanitarian Action: A Transatlantic Agenda for Operations and Research, edited by Larry Minear and Thomas G. Weiss. Occasional Paper #39, Watson Institute, Brown University, 2000.
- Orentlicher, Diane F. “Bearing Witness: The Art and Science of Human Rights Fact-Finding.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 3 (1990): 83-135.
- Weissbrodt, David and James McCarthy. “Fact-finding by International Non-governmental Human Rights Organizations.” Virginia Journal of International Law, 22 (1981).
- Weissbrodt, David. “Book Review. Human Rights Missions: A Study of the Fact-Finding Practice of Non-Governmental Organizations by Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen.” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Feb., 1988): 134-137. (Note: Introduces volume by Thoolen and Verstappen and also provides brief literature review on human rights research methodology.)
On specific methodologies
- Amnesty International, Freedom from Torture, and University of York: Center for Applied Human Rights. “Active Participation in Human Rights,” Conference Report, 2011. (Note: See Annex 1 for an overview of conceptual challenges in incorporating rights holder perspectives and priorities in human rights research and reporting.)
- McClintock, Michael. “Data Collection and the Fight Against Hate Crimes,” OSCE Tolerance Implementation Meeting: Addressing the Hate Crime Data Deficit. Vienna, November 2006.
- Stover, Eric. The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in the Hague. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. (Note: Addresses the use of victim and survivor testimony.)
- Weissbrodt, David. “International Trial Observers.” Stanford Journal of International Law 18 (1982): 27-121.
Case Studies and Examples
- Amnesty International. Working in Partnership. “Experts by Experience” (Note: Illustrates use of “active participation” methodology.)
- Geiger, MD., H. Jack and Robert M. Cook-Deegan, MD. “The Role of Physicians in Conflicts and Humanitarian Crises: Case Studies from the Field Missions of Physicians for Human Rights, 1988 to 1993.” Journal of the American Medical Association 270, no. 5 (1993): 616-620.
- “I Remember Being Shown Some Very Severe Signs of Torture,” Former staff researchers of Amnesty International reminisce about gathering information in Pinochet’s Chile (blogpost, August 14, 2013).