On March 9, the Center for Human Rights invited Philip Alston, Margaret Satterthwaite, Sarah Knuckey and Rebecca Hamilton, to discuss current issues in the field of Human Rights Fact-Finding. The discussion marked the launch of the new volume on the topic, edited by Philip Alston and Sarah Knuckey.
Philip Alston explained that the idea for the volume emerged in response to the lack of knowledge about human rights fact finding methods, that characterized the UN system from the 1970s until the 2000s. Since then, the field has boomed, but there has not been a systematic effort to bring state-of-the-art work together.
The book does precisely that, and also offers critiques of existing fact-finding methods and paradigms . It does so, for example, with regards to the practice of victim participation, which, all too often, treats victims as sources from which information can be extracted, rather than individuals or groups with their own agenda. Panelists proposed a variety of interdisciplinary and scientific methods to analyze human rights violations in a participatory manner which is more inclusive and empowering. Yet, at the same time, the book also raises the question whether the field needs comprehensive guidelines, or whether the complexity of the field is precisely what constitutes its core and what is needed to account for the contextual realities which might not facilitate a one-size-fits all approach.
Margaret Satterthwaite then built on this question to address the relationship and difference between investigation (based on criminal law and prosecution traditions), research (based on social science tradition) and fact-finding (based on legal and journalistic traditions), which all seek to identify truth, but which have different objectives.
Panelists discussed both the difficulties and pitfalls of interdisciplinarity approaches, as well as some benefits and hands-on advice for working in an interdisciplinary way with rights-holders. All panelists concurred in underlining the importance of working with communities that express an interest in collaborating on human rights issues directly, and not imposing certain concepts and expectations on them as human rights practitioners. This forces practitioners to think critically about what they have to offer communities, in order to support them in their struggle for their rights. It is not uncommon for community interests and assumptions of practitioners to differ, and the speakers pointed out several sections in the book that help practitioners revisit their own priorities and assumptions in order to move more in line with the needs and interests of rights-holders.
Rebecca Hamilton, who moderated the debate, then asked panelists to highlight some lessons learned for both academics and for practitioners, acknowledging that some practices require more time and resources than some organizations in the field have at their disposal and that the organizational make-up of the UN, and many NGOs and international organizations in the field of human rights, does not allow for critical reflection and genuinely interdisciplinary work. Yet, through their clinical work and lectures, the authors and contributors to the book also seek to make their insights available to other partners in the field.
Panelists emphasized how some elements of inclusive approaches are easier to implement, whereas others still pose challenges of ownership, for example with regards to water testing, it is easy enough to involve the community in the collection of samples, but the actual scientific element of testing often still happens in the Global North in a way that does not involve rights-holders. At the same time, certain forms of knowledge that exist in the Global South are discounted too easily in the global human rights architecture.
In conclusion, panelists also indicated how the book raises question about the viability of large organizations like the UN and the ICC, with little flexibility, as compared to leaner, nimbler organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which are more willing to adopt innovative and community-based approaches, rather than implementing top-down schemes. It is extremely valuable to have guidelines and principles that can serve as best practices for others, but the fascination with replication and guidelines that apply all across the board, to ICC investigators, international organizations and small grassroots organizations, risks killing small initiatives that are particularly relevant to communities whose rights have been violated. The speakers emphasized the importance of more contextualized and situational work that makes visible the dilemmas practitioners deal with in the field.
During the Q&A, panelists discussed the ethics of fact-finding, the role of uncertainty estimation and the cost of factoring these elements into fact finding. In conclusion, the panelists pointed out the creation of vulnerability that comes with the creation of empowerment. Often local partners collaborate in fact-finding missions, without being fully aware of the potential implications of their participation. In doing so, speakers also touched upon the question of informed consent and the storage of data on potentially harmful behavior.