Truth, it is said, is war’s first casualty. Parties to a conflict have many incentives to hide the truth of their actions, particularly where war crimes may be involved, and that fundamental reality underscores the importance of accurate and trustworthy human rights reporting from conflict zones.
As relayed elsewhere on this website, most international human rights organizations initially distanced themselves from reporting on wartime violations (Human Rights Watch being the important exception). By the 1990s, however, virtually all the international human rights organizations were grappling with the challenges of conducting human rights research in the context of active conflict. They embraced the moral compunction to document and declaim attacks on civilians, and they recognized that advances in communications technology were raising audience expectations about real-time reporting. At the same time, they needed to confront some very practical risks. Human rights research can be difficult under any circumstances, but conducting independent investigations in the midst of active conflict poses additional challenges for human rights researchers.
Curt Goering discusses the logistical and methodological adjustments that must be made by human rights researchers working in conflict zones. In addition to these pragmatic concerns, human rights researchers in war situations must be knowledgeable about the standards of international humanitarian law as well as human rights law, as they will be asked to comment on incidence of war crimes as well as human rights violations.
Fortunately, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) assembled and codified lists of recognized war crimes and crimes against humanity, and human rights advocates today can rely on Articles 7 and 8 of the ICC Statute as an authoritative point of reference. Crimes against humanity are defined in Article 7 as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. They include rape, deportation, enslavement, torture and murder (among others). Article 8 on war crimes identifies some 26 specifically prohibited actions, among them intentional attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers; the use of prohibited weapons; and such grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions as torture, willful killing, and hostage taking.
The ICC became operational in 2003, and in some circumstances individuals may now face ICC indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Accordingly, human rights advocates today recognize the importance of assembling evidence not only for their immediate appeals, but also for possible use in eventual prosecution.
For more information:
Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director of Amnesty International USA , is an expert on conducting field research during human rights crises. He recounts his experiences in the narrative, “Human Rights Research in Conflict Zones and Military Forensics.”
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- United Nations. “Human Rights in Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories.” Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, 2009. (Note: also known as the “Goldstone Report.” Includes several sections on field research methodology.)
- McClintock, Michael. “Defending the Human Rights Defenders: Working for Human Rights Activists Under Fire.” Paper for Amnesty International Conference on Human Rights Defenders, Bogota, Colombia, May 1996.
- Sriram, Chandra Lekha, et al. Surviving Field Research: Working in Violent and Difficult Situations. Routledge, 2009.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
Case Studies and Examples
- International Crisis Group. “Fifteen Years on the Front Lines.” Brochure, 2010.
- Amnesty International. “Why is the World doing Nothing?” Blog post on use of cluster munitions in Syria, 2012.
- Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Coalition Bus Bombing Apparent War Crime,” 2018.