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“Beyond Bystander” Conference Part 1: Monitoring Human Rights in Conflict

BY Johanna Debari


The inaugural Senator Joseph I. Lieberman Conference and Lecture Series on Human Rights Practice “Beyond Bystander: Monitoring Human Rights in Conflict Zones” was hosted on UConn’s Stamford, CT, Campus Friday, March 27th, 2015. The goal of the conference was to bring scholars and practitioners together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of monitoring human rights in conflict zones. Supported by Senator Joseph Lieberman, himself, and Point72 Asset Management, the conference was created to interrogate the current state of investigating, analyzing and disseminating knowledge of human rights or human rights abuses in conflict. With such a noble objective, it was clear this conference was set up to cultivate change and provide tools for both experienced practitioners and the general public to create better strategies to address and monitor human rights.
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I had the honor and privilege of attending a dinner preceding the conference at which Senator Lieberman spoke. Beginning with the value his grandmother placed on human rights and civility and his religious upbringing in Judaism, Senator Lieberman spoke about his inspiration to become engaged in the human rights movement. He described collaborating with his colleagues in Congress, during his 24 years in the US senate, to focus on being “voices of conscience” and “amplifiers for American human rights activists” in pushing the executive branch toward action. Senator Lieberman also described his pride and excitement in the fact that human rights is now expanding into a profession, rather than only a social movement. In keeping with this, Senator Lieberman left us with his current aspiration: “I have a dream that in the years ahead a very large number of the most important practitioners and leaders in the cause of human rights here at home and around the world will be graduates of the University of Connecticut at Storrs and at Stamford.” Overall, his speech was an important and inspiring point on which to begin the conference the following day.

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The conference consisted of three panels of practitioners, former policymakers, and academics. The first panel, “From Citizens to Satellites: Monitoring Human Rights ‘On the Ground’,” was designed to discuss technologies and techniques for generating data on human rights in conflict zones, as well as empowering “citizen journalists” to engage in their own type of documentation. Kelly Matheson, senior attorney and program manager of WITNESS, began by talking about some of the limits and challenges related to film evidence used in international legal bodies. She emphasized the need for teaching activists particular techniques for filming human rights abuses so that there are fewer barriers to using this footage as evidence in criminal court proceedings. Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan Policy Analyst of the Enough Project, discussed her organization’s “Satellite Sentinel Project,” which captures satellite imagery of conflict zones, which provides crucial corroboration of testimonies of human rights abuses on the ground. Finally, Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, President of SUDIA (Sudan Development Initiative), discussed his organization’s work as an evidence base not only to document human rights abuses but also to bring about change. Through SMS messaging via cell phone, SUDIA receives information about broken wells or market prices to make individuals more aware and exercise more agency in their livelihoods. Overall, the panel offered an array of opportunities to practice human rights monitoring, as well as exposing some of the limits and challenges experienced by practitioners on the ground.

This panel raised some questions that were particular to my own research interests in sexual violence against women. I asked myself, how can you implement these techniques of filming, taking photos, and sending text messages about acts of sexual violence without invading the privacy of victim? I know it may seem counterintuitive, because one would think the more public outcry there is the better, but the ethics behind collecting such evidence were troubling for me. How do you film acts or results of sexual violence using the particular techniques Kelly mentioned, such as including time stamps, scanning for the scenery, etc.? These were some of the challenging questions I came up with despite hearing incredibly compelling arguments for the monitoring of other human rights abuses.

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The second panel, “Reporting Conflict in the New Media Environment,” was structured around the dangers of being a “war correspondent” in this day and age. Due to the changes in both the nature of conflict and the technologies available for journalists to use, the panelists offered their opinions on these new challenges in light of personal experiences. Richard Pendry, Ph.D. candidate in the Center for Journalism at the University of Kent, began with the question: “What does it mean to be a war reporter?” He explained how our shift into a post-modern environment has greatly altered how we engage in warfare and how we witness human rights abuses during this dynamic shift. Anne Bennett, Executive Director of Hirondelle USA, followed, discussing this organization’s work with low-tech radios in disseminating information for monitoring conflict situations on the ground. Motivated by the “nexus of information and action,” Bennett noted the vitality of journalists and citizen journalists as the first people to have a significant impact on illuminating human rights abuses during conflict. The presentations closed with Joel Simon, Executive Director of Committee to Protect Journalists, discussing the importance of supporting and protecting journalists who do such important work on the battlefield. Simon described a shift from journalists being used as “conduits” for information about perpetrating groups in past conflicts, to their now being direct targets of violence as the prominence of social media undermines the need to rely on journalists. The void of information transfer is being filled with violence against journalists because they are no longer seen as useful, but rather a direct threat to perpetrators’ objectives.

What particularly piqued my interest in this panel was the concept of the dignity of journalism, which was brought up in one of Anne Bennett’s responses to a question. She described the intersection of dignity and journalism as the facilitation of people telling their stories and allowing them to bear witness to injustices they have experienced, which in turn helps to restore their human dignity. She described how the regularity of hearing a radio program every day, at a certain time, even amidst the chaos of conflict, gave people meaning and a sense of control over their lives. When their world was falling apart, being able to depend on hearing others’ voices consistently was the most valuable thing.

Joel Simon also had an interesting response to a question about why journalists are not treated with the same “untouchable” status as International Red Cross workers. He stated that the “utility factor” of journalists is not that high, and that’s what matters in conflict in terms of determining what level of protection is offered. Journalists overall aren’t typically viewed as “useful” because of the plethora of social media and other ways of reporting out there. It was very troubling to hear such a response and it really got me thinking: What more reason do we need to protect journalists other than the fact that they are being tortured, kidnapped, or killed?

To read more about the conference, please see the post “Beyond Bystander” Conference Blog Part 2: From Monitoring to Action.