"Beyond Bystander" Conference Part 2: From Monitoring to Action

After lunch, the Honorable Navanethem Pillay, Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered the keynote speech, addressing the question: Why do we need human rights monitoring? She began by emphasizing the important role of civil society in putting pressure on governments to facilitate social change. Focusing on the importance of human rights monitoring before a conflict starts, she stated that methods used by organizations and individuals to engage in monitoring and reporting should be “impartial and balanced, but also truthful.” This neutrality is highly valuable because the information culled from professional and citizen journalists can be used to bolster arguments made to the United Nations Security Council to motivate action. Because “there is not a country in the world which can claim a perfect human rights record,” it is all the more important to monitor and document human rights violations since they are ubiquitous global issues. To support the collection of this crucial data, we need to be protecting journalists, members of NGOs, and “human rights defenders” to ensure that those individuals reporting and gathering this information can continue their indispensable work.

Navi Pillay

The third panel of the conference, “From Monitoring to Action,” focused participants’ attention on ways of effective monitoring to gain accurate information for responding to human rights violations during conflict. Yakin Ertürk, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, began the panel presentations by explaining that conflicts have shifted from “taking place on battlefields to backyards,” focusing particularly on the increasing vulnerabilities of women and children. Claiming that the “distinction between war and peace may not be all that meaningful” anymore, she emphasized the need to attend to disempowered communities when mobilizing the human rights discourse in both pre- and post-conflict contexts.

Tom Porteous, Deputy Program Director of Human Rights Watch, echoed Ertürk’s comments by saying human rights abuses are precursors of conflict. With this, he described the Human Rights Watch method of monitoring conflict. With the goal of spurring action, HRM documents the abuses on the ground, exposing them by disseminating knowledge via media, and bringing about change by advocating for abused populations before policy makers. In closing, he emphasized that good data gathering, interpretation and monitoring are crucial in persuading policymakers to act.

The final speaker, Emily Martinez, Director of Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations, offered her thoughts on the role financial institutions play in the monitoring of human rights abuses during conflict. She emphasized that good monitoring techniques require local financial support, rather that solely third party funding being offered to governments. She also emphasized the importance of developing careful strategies for providing funding to these local groups. Special care must be taken to assure funding is being provided directly to individuals with the most need rather than through multiple avenues where it has the potential to be repurposed.  Funding is also crucial towards developing effective means for responding to human rights abuses during conflict, either in the form of humanitarian aid, judicial prosecutions in the aftermath, or even investment in the many technologies we have heard about previously designed to document human rights abuses. As one might expect, it all comes down to how much money is available and where that money is going which can determine (to an extent) how human rights abuses during conflict are addressed.

Insight imparted by this panel was particularly important because the panelists emphasized the need to see beyond just the “war/conflict and peace” binary and to be monitoring human rights before, during, and after conflicts. It was absorbing to watch the conversation shift so organically from focusing just on efforts to report human rights abuses in conflict to emphasizing the need to report human rights abuses as they are happening in whatever context.

To end what was a thought-provoking and enriching day, Dr. Glenn Mitoma, Director of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, offered concluding remarks. Asking “how do we move beyond being bystanders,” Dr. Mitoma described “technology as a net gain” in pursuing the goal of action. While monitoring and action are often seen as identical, he warned that we must be cautious because monitoring can be used as an excuse for inaction. Dr. Mitoma left us with an important message to think more deeply about: the question of why things happen won’t be solved by the use of technology alone; and thus why is an important and separate question that informs the continuation of our work in human rights as both scholars and practitioners.  With all the hard work being done already, there is still much more work to do, and, personally, I left the conference inspired and revved up to find my place in the growing movement!

If you want to read more about the first half of the conference, please see the blog “Beyond Bystander” Conference Part 1: Monitoring Human Rights in Conflict Zones.