2012-14 Initiative on Human Rights Fact-Finding, Methods, and Evidence

Hina Shamsi conducts interviews as part of the Project on Extrajudicial Execution's fact-finding visit to the DRC in 2009.

Hina Shamsi conducts interviews as part of the Project on Extrajudicial Execution’s fact-finding visit to the DRC in 2009.

International fact-finding in response to human rights violations is proliferating and becoming more sophisticated and complex.  At the same time it remains strikingly under-theorized and few attempts have been made to subject the assumptions, methodologies and techniques of this rapidly developing field to critical and constructive scrutiny.  The CHRGJ initiative aimed to identify key issues which could benefit from more sustained analysis and critique, taking account of contributions that can be made by diverse disciplines.  The overall goal was to generate a better understanding of these issues with a view to facilitating more effective fact-finding.

Human rights fact-finding is at the core of most human rights work.  The gathering of evidence of alleged human rights abuses is one of the central functions performed by human rights advocates, and forms the basis of human rights campaigns, reports, advocacy, and litigation.  In addition to the rapid proliferation in recent years in the number and variety of fact-finding mechanisms, the methods employed or available have become increasingly sophisticated and multidisciplinary.  While it is predictable that the governments impugned would have issued scathing indictments of many of reports prepared by fact-finders, more objective commentators have also begun to be critical of the composition, methodologies, interpretive techniques, and rigor of some of the fact-finding missions.  Although some groups have produced fact-finding guidelines and trainings, those involved rarely have the opportunity to reflect on current practices and new directions, or to consider how these developments fit into the broader picture. Given their crucial importance and the seemingly ever-increasing reliance that the international community is placing on them, it is essential that some comparative and critical attention should be devoted to the key issues that arise in this context.  Yet, to date, almost no such research or analysis has been undertaken, and there is very little critical analysis addressing the basis, forms, standards, methodologies, and potential consequences of human rights fact-finding. This remains so despite a number of initiatives designed to classify and categorize existing practice and to generate new rules or guidelines.

To address these gaps, the Center’s program of activity included:

  • International conference on human rights fact-finding designed to bring key actors together and generate new perspectives. The conference took place on November 1-2, 2013 at NYU School of Law.
  • New scholarship.  The publication of a volume of essays analyzing the principal emerging challenges and opportunities to move fact-finding to a new level of sophistication.  Through these essays, the Center promoted new critical scholarship and opened up new directions in relevant research.  The results were widely disseminated through human rights academics and practitioner communities.
  • Interdisciplinary workshops.  The Center organized a series of interdisciplinary fact-finding workshops involving academics-and practitioners.  In December 2012, it hosted a workshop on the role of new information and communication technologies in human rights investigations.  In May 2013, it hosted a workshop on the reliability of witness testimony as evidence, bringing together experts in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive interviewing with human rights researchers.  Other workshops addressed  social science methodologies in human rights investigations, informed consent and security for witnesses, vicarious trauma, big data in human rights, and assessing the outcomes of human rights investigations.
  • Critical labs.  The Center also hosted a series of small labs for practitioners and academics, where past, ongoing, and planned fact-finding investigations were subjected to peer and cross-disciplinary constructive critique.
  • Scholars.  The center hosted scholars and student-scholars in residence conducting research and writing on cutting edge issues in fact-finding.