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

International fact-finding in response to human rights violations has been proliferating and becoming more sophisticated and complex. At the same time, it remains strikingly under-theorized with few attempts made to subject the assumptions, methodologies and techniques of this rapidly developing field to critical and constructive scrutiny.  The Initiative on Fact Finding, Methods, and Evidence aimed to identify key issues that might benefit from further sustained analysis and critique, taking account potential contributions 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 impugned governments would have issued scathing indictments of many reports prepared by fact-finders, more objective commentators have also advanced critiques of the composition, methodologies, interpretive techniques, and rigor of some fact-finding missions. Although some groups have produced fact-finding guidelines and trainings, those involved rarely enjoy the opportunity to reflect on current practices and new directions, or to consider how these developments fit into the broader picture.

Given the crucial importance of these methods, and the international community’s seemingly ever-increasing reliance on them, it is essential that some comparative and critical attention be devoted to the issues that arise in this context. Yet at the time this initiative was launched in 2014, almost no such research or analysis had been undertaken, and little critical analysis existed addressing the basis, forms, standards, methodologies, and potential consequences of human rights fact-finding. This was the case, despite a number of initiatives designed to classify and categorize existing practice and to generate new rules or guidelines.

To address these gaps, the 2014-2016 program of activity conducted as part of the Initiative on Fact-Finding, Methods, and Evidence included:
  • A conference. An 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, CHRGJ 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.

For a complete record of CHRGJ’s work related to the Initiative on Fact-Finding, Methods, and Evidence, visit our searchable Document Center and News and Events archives.

Recent Documents
Articles and Chapters
May 26, 2017
Quantitative Methods in Advocacy-Oriented Human Rights Research
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Articles and Chapters
May 26, 2017
The Potential of Ethnographic Methods for Human Rights Research
View Document
Press Releases and Statements
February 2, 2016
Innovative Lab Launched to Strengthen Human Rights Work
View Document

Related Pages

Human Rights Methodology and Institutions
Human Rights Methodology Lab
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