Front Line Watchdogs: Monitoring accountability for human rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 to Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for your participation in our dialogue on Front Line Watchdogs: Monitoring accountability for human rights. Front line watchdogs come in all shapes and sizes. They can be seen in courtrooms ensuring fair trials, accompanying threatened human rights defenders, holding vigil outside police stations to prevent torture, protecting election ballot results, testing for discrimination, monitoring development aid projects, investigating toxic waste from companies, etc., etc. 

While government bodies and corporations are often expected to monitor and regulate themselves, self-regulation does not always successfully uphold rights. Front line watchdogs take on this important citizen role of holding communities, government and corporations accountable.  Watchdog monitoring provides an opportunity to analyze, understand and influence abusive systems of power and to engage community members in human rights work.

In this dialogue participants considered the various ways in which organizations monitor, engaging the questions of the purpose of monitoring and its impact. They explored successful front line watchdog tactics, and discussed lessons learned, challenges and opportunities for practitioners to adapt these tactics for their own issues and communities. 

Principles: What is monitoring, why do we do it, and what are we monitoring?

Participants identified a number of steps that define and outline the process of monitoring. First, monitoring relies upon the collection of information, either through the monitoring of a particular situation or event on the ground or beginning with specific actors (civil society organizations, national institutions, governments, regional or international systems) examining their response to those situations or events on the ground. The data should then be verified, to provide legitimacy and preemptively counter any attempts by other actors to discredit the information, and presented in a contextualized manner.

After gathering data, watchdog organizations may use the information to pressure governments, draft reports, or denounce human rights violations. Appeals, press announcements, and letter campaigns are some of the ways  in which this data may be used.  Also, using social media tools to raise the profile of at-risk persons can serve as a means of protecting them from abuse or assassination. Participants finally stressed the importance of gaining consent from those you seek to represent, particularly because sometimes public action can put victims in even greater danger. 

Practice: How do we monitor? How do we engage communities in this work?

Participants cited the differences between operating as an outside monitor or local monitor when engaging communities, something determined by a multitude of factors. For certain issues and groups, such as women's human rights, it is impossible for watchdogs to be separate because the core problems and remedies must be identified by those who are living them. Other times, such as with WATCH’s court-monitoring, an “outsider” perspective can be an asset, lending a different sort of credibility.

Ultimately, monitoring should hold international and regional human rights systems accountable, and provide credible information to human rights defenders and communities. Participatory research is a key way in which we monitor, because it provides credible, grassroots information, and creates a network of activists in the community to respond to defend human rights.

Challenges: What are the challenges and opportunities that human rights monitors face today?

Two key challenges discussed were the tension between advocacy and impartiality, and the question of a time frame for specific projects. For example, even data gathering can be a means of pressuring governments and advocating change.  However, advocacy can also result in a denial of access to monitoring organizations. Therefore the challenge is to balance the push for change with the practical interaction to maintain monitoring capacity.

Furthermore, it is very challenging to define a timeframe for a monitoring project.  Watchdogs must decide whether to choose a subjective length of time for the campaign or commit to it until it has been completed. While the latter is preferable, organizations must then also struggle with how to prevent the campaign from being perceived as static. Finally, while long-term projects can provide a better overview and more precise recommendations, they also run the risk that people in positions of power will sometimes claim that the data is out of date.


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Conversation Leaders

Heather Collister's picture
Heather Collister
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Lizzy Openshaw's picture
Lizzy Openshaw
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
charlenesadik's picture
Charlene Sadik
The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group ( PHRMG)
cpt_colombia's picture
Colombia Peace Maker Team
Christian Peacemaker Teams
Delphine Reculeau's picture
Delphine Reculeau
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
marnalynn's picture
Marna Anderson
Alexandra Kossin's picture
Alexandra Kossin
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
Stewart Vriesinga's picture
Stewart Vriesinga
Anna Innocenti's picture
Anna Innocenti
Global Human Rights Defence
marshafreeman's picture
Marsha Freeman
Anne-Laurence Lacroix's picture
Anne-Laurence Lacroix
Melanie Southworth's picture
Melanie Southworth
Christian Peacemakers Team - Palestine
Bella Desai's picture
Bella Desai
IBAmonitor's picture
Lorraine Smith