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Reporting Human Rights Abuses

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Reporting Human Rights Abuses

See a human rights abuse in the field? Here's what you can do:

Before doing anything, be extremely cautious, both about your own security and the security of local people who know you. In some cases, your actions — including something as simple as taking photographs or meeting with an embassy official — may place them at risk of retaliation. It's a good idea to check with experienced human rights workers and with local colleagues before you act.

If you know you are working in a region where human rights abuses are likely to happen, prepare in advance by making contact with human rights experts in your region. These could include experts at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Human Rights First, or local human rights organizations that specialize in the country (for instance, in China, Human Rights in China or Chinese Rights Defenders). Many human rights experts will be very pleased to be in touch, and will view you as a valuable future resource. Ask them to let you know what issues you should be looking out for, and offer to provide them with information about any abuses you witness on the ground.

Often, the most useful thing you can do is to observe everything carefully in order to serve as a witness later. At what time and where did the abuse occur? Exactly who was involved? If there were soldiers or police involved, how many, and were they uniformed? Did they have badge numbers or were they wearing other insignia? If you saw someone get beaten, exactly how many times were they struck, and where? If it's unsafe to take notes at the time, try to keep the sequence of events clear in your own mind. Think of yourself as compiling a police report and gather all the facts.

Your objectivity is one of your greatest assets. Avoid confronting police or military, and remember that you will be more credible as a witness and more effective as an advocate if you report all the facts of the situation.

Take detailed notes as soon after the event as possible. Good notes can be as valuable as photographs in certain circumstances.  If you are inclined to take photos, use discretion.  Sometimes a camera can help defuse a volatile situation, while in others simply pulling a camera out in the midst of a protest or public incident can heighten an already tense situation.

It is best left up to local actors to decide whether to release the names of victims publicly to the national or global press.  Consult with local and international human rights organizations if you have information that others do not possess.

As soon as it is safe for you to do so, report your information to a human rights organization or the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) [see contact information below]. The UNHCHR also has special rapporteurs who monitor abuses in specific areas worldwide, and you can also contact them. You may also want to alert journalists you meet in the field. Be aware that in some countries, your e-mail or telephone communications could be monitored, and be careful to avoid using the names of local sources.

Once you are back home, there is much you can do to raise awareness and support rights defenders in your field site. You can offer to brief human rights organizations on what you know about the region, allow them to interview you for a report, or even offer to speak as an expert witness in any hearings or advocacy meetings they have planned. You can also work through AAA and CfHR to organize other anthropologists to campaign to end the abuses you witnessed. E-mail the advocacy task group  if you are interested in organizing a campaign through AAA.

Note that potential human rights issues often become apparent to anthropologists in their role as fieldworkers, and so may involve many considerations of role and location beyond those mentioned here.  In addition, keep in mind that "the field" is full of all kinds of groups and organizations and community institutions that might not conceive of themselves in terms of "human rights," but could prove invaluable both in understanding the context and in pursuing advocacy.

Contact with information about rights abuses: 

HRW general mailbox
Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor
New York, NY 10118-3299 USA
Tel: (212) 290-4700
Fax: (212) 736-1300

Click here for regional contact information.

Amnesty International general mailbox
Amnesty International (headquarters)

1 Easton Street
Tel: +44-20-74135500
Fax: +44-20-79561157

Send an email here.

Amnesty International—USA
5 Penn Plaza
New York, NY 10001
phone: (212) 807-8400
fax: (212) 627-1451

Click here for regional contact information.

Human Rights First general mailbox:
Human Rights First
333 Seventh Avenue, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10001-5108
Tel: (212) 845 5200
Fax: (212) 845 5299

Additional contact information here.

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights:
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Petitions to the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination can be emailed to

Click here to file individual complaints.

Click here for regional and country contact information.

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