Documenting Violations: Choosing the Right Approach

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, January 27, 2010 to Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Conversation type: 

Summary available

This important online dialogue featured Documenting Violations: Choosing the Right Approach from January 27 to February 2, 2010.  This dialogue featured practitioners that have developed database systems to document human rights violations, organizations on the ground documenting violations, and those that are training practitioners on how to choose the right approach and system for their documentation.  We looked at options for ways to collect, store and share your human rights data safely and effectively.

Summary of the Dialogue

In the dialogue titled Documenting Violations: Choosing the Right Approach, participants discussed the range of methods that can be used to thoroughly document human rights violations, and utilize them to motivate a response. Participants shared a myriad of powerful examples from their own work, proving the importance and vast range of impact that documentation has.

What is documentation?
Documentation is a process of strategic and systematic gathering of quantitative or qualitative data. This process consists of several activities, namely:

  1. determining what information is needed and establishing means for acquiring it;
  2. recording the discovered information and storing such in appropriate containers (called documents) or collecting already-existing documents containing the needed information;
  3. organising the documents to make them more accessible; and
  4. actually providing the documents to users who need the information.

Before starting data collection, it is important to have a concrete end goal for the data, as that will largely influence the type and scope of data collected, and determine the parameters of the collection process. Furthermore, it is essential to establish baseline data to which new data can be compared and contrasted with.

Documentation builds a strong platform for advocacy for it provides evidence that can oppose what governments or newspapers are reporting. Here is a 10-step plan on how to use documentation for human rights advocacy.

An important lesson learned is to review the impact of the documents on particular human rights efforts and store data safely.

Data Collection Software:
Two main kinds of software were mentioned throughout the dialogue – Martus and OpenEvsys. What tool for what purpose? The differences of the two documentation systems are discussed here.

Martus secures your data by encrypting it on your computer and (if you choose to) automatically backing it up to remote, dedicated secure servers around the world. If your computer is lost, destroyed or stolen, you can retrieve your information from the remote servers. Martus is a very good tool for use in countries with very repressive regimes, where you and your sources can get into serious trouble if your data is found.

OpenEvsys can be used both to collect and organize stories, but also to provide "who did what to whom" quantitative analysis of the violations in these stories: how many acts of torture by military in X province, what is the gender breakdown of the victims, etc.OpenEvsys is different, in that you can also record in as much detail as needed what happens inside these stories. You can record violations, link them to the victims, and the perpetrators, and the sources.  It is a fully relational system, so you only enter perpetrator X once, and then you link perpetrator to all the acts that he or she has committed, in all your stories, and then you can get a "bio" of all the acts that perpetrator has committed.

Compiling Different Documents
Although different organizations will use different software, the contents of their documentation are likely related. Advocacy efforts benefit by compiling data and creating a bigger picture of human rights violations.
Metadata , or simply “data about data,” is a set of structured data or content types that characterize an information object. Metadata can be used to compile data from multiple databases, thus creating a larger document. Developing a useful metadata system for the human rights community could have tremendous impact for the human rights community for it would allow drawing connections between different data sets and discover greater patterns of abuse.

What data can be collected?

  • violations
  • testimonies – For example, the Iraq History Project collected thousands of testimonies documenting the destructive impact of political violence under the Saddam Hussein regime.
  • monitoring indicators – particularly helpful for discrimination, ongoing oppression
  • legal investigations & researching government data - archives of repressive regimes may contain important information. For example, the Guatemala Archive Project revealed that many government-supported atrocities were well documented in their own archives.
  • scanning media
  • documenting HR interventions
  • anthropological research
  • ecological studies

Qualitative or quantitative research?
A big challenge in the field of documentation is whether to rely on quantitative or qualitative data. Both are important, quantitative data draw the big picture for us and qualitative data supply the emotive, social, and political aspects of a person's experience.  A related question – How structured should documentation be? - poses a challenge to field research. Narrowly defined questionnaires will likely omit a large portion of the person's experience, whereas powerful individual testimonies are difficult to summarize into big reports that ought to quantify impact. The advantages and disadvantages of each approach are discussed here.

Documenting civil and political & economic, social, and cultural rights
Some of the traditional approaches (such as documenting violations) have been used primarily in the case of civil and political rights. However, the human rights community is strengthening its focus on the documentation of economic, social and cultural rights. Three broad categories of approaches to ESC were mentioned in the dialogue:

  • state violations resulting from government actions, policies, and legislation.
  • violations related to patterns of discrimination.
  • violations related to the state’s failure to fulfill minimum core obligations of enumerated rights.


  • when released, some data can be harmful to the very individuals it aims to protect
  • accuracy – it is important to be aware of our biases as those who collect documents, “record the story not your interpretation of the story.”
  • activist vs. scientists – NGO documentation is sometimes not trusted by scientists. Cooperation between experts and activists is key to solid documentation
  • security -  Recognizing the need of organizations to combine their data to create greater impact, it is all the more important to ensure a secure transfer and storage of data that does not put people (both those documented and documenting) at risk


Conversation Leaders

vijayat's picture
Vijaya Tripathi
Bert Verstappen's picture
Bert Verstappen
nathanfreitas's picture
Nathan Freitas
Open Ideals, Tibet Action Institute, The Guardian Project
PJP's picture
Patrick Pierce
International Center for Transitional Justice
oburlaca's picture
Oleg Burlaca
meganp's picture
Megan Price
Sofia.Espinosa's picture
Sofia Espinosa
Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional
Jorge.Villagran's picture
Jorge Villagrán
Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional
Red TDT's picture
Agnieszka Raczynska
Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos "Todos los Derechos para Todos y Todas"
drothenberg's picture
Daniel Rothenberg
International Human Rights Law Institute
janaasher's picture
Jana Asher
Seth's picture
Seth Shaw
Duke University Archives
patrickstawski's picture
Patrick Stawski
Duke University Libraries - The Archive for Human Rights
daniel.desposito's picture
Daniel D'Esposito
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