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

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

What does human rights monitoring look like on the ground?  What tactics have you used and for what objectives?  How have you engaged communities in your monitoring efforts?

  • What tactics have you used to carry out your monitoring work?  Where the tactics effective?  Why or why not?
  • Interviews: How do you carry out interviews with witnesses and survivors?  How do you avoid re-traumatization and vicarious tramautization, and manage stress?
  • How do you gather information through focus groups, forums and community meetings?
  • In what ways can communities participate in and contribute to human rights monitoring?
  • Share examples of how communities have contributed to monitoring efforts.

Share your thoughts, ideas and stories to this discussion thread by adding your comments below, or responding to existing comments.

"how are communities engaged"

I have a problem with the way this question is phrased. It assumes that the monitoring CSOs are outside the community. The human rights enterprise, particularly with respect to women's human rights, would be dead in the water if it relied entirely on outside organizations to document the issues. Since many discrimination issues are largely systemic, the core problems and remedies must be identified by those who are living them. In fact, we have seen a number of issues about which domestic NGOs have clearly indicated that any appearance of involvement or pressure from outside the country will backfire and make their lives more difficult.  

This is not to say that there is no room for non-domestic CSOs to be involved, and sometimes the exposure of the problems outside the country increases positive pressure for change. In addition, regional or international CSOs can provide resources, ideas, technical assistance. But the involvement must be invited and well-informed, and the role of CSOs from outside the communities must be agreed upon.

This caveat applies as well to the UN monitoring principles to which Kristin has referred. The principles were developed for application to the work of HROs--outsiders.


What does it mean to "engage communities" in monitoring?

Thank you, Marsha, for pointing out the potential pitfalls of outside assistance in monitoring efforts.  I would assume that this will be an important distinction to draw and I am eager to learn more about how organization assess whether or not outside involvement is helpful or harmful.

To your point about engaging communities - I can see how this kind of question could be read as "how do you come into communities that are not your own and get them on board with your goals?"  But I think that engaging communities, whether you are in or out of the community, is important for monitoring.  I have zero experience monitoring human rights, so I could be way off and I would love to hear from others on this.  I have a few examples of human rights monitors engaging their own communities in their monitoring work:

Citizen monitoring of courts as a means of creating system change - Thankfully, we have the implementer of this tactic here in this dialogue (Marna Anderson of WATCH) so she can speak more on this approach.  WATCH has developed a highly effective court monitoring method involving citizen volunteers as a means of creating legal and policy system change and improving the administration of justice for victims of abuse.  WATCH, based in Minnesota, trains 50 volunteers each year who, along with staff, monitor more than 4,500 court hearings regarding sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases. They are immediately recognized by the red clipboards they carry. These highly visible red clipboards serve to alert judges and court staff that they are being observed and monitored.

Transmitting vote tallies by mobile phone to prevent tampering - During Kenya’s 2002 presidential elections, independent monitoring groups used mobile phones to keep the election process honest by reporting vote tallies from each polling place immediately.  Volunteers were stationed in 178 of Kenya's 210 constituencies. Volunteers used their own phones and were given an allowance of 2000 Kenyan shillings (about US$26). They called a central IED office to report as soon as votes were counted; the numbers were posted immediately on the Internet. Volunteers also called in to report violence and malpractice.

Monitoring checkpoints to document abuses and demonstrate solidarity - Machsom Watch monitors several Israeli checkpoints every morning and afternoon during the periods of highest traffic to protest the checkpoints and to protect the rights of individual Palestinians who must pass through them. All of the volunteers for Machsom Watch (machsom means checkpoint in Hebrew) are Israeli women.

Training local level monitors to document and seek redress for human rights violations - The Chiapas Community Defenders Network (Red de Defensores Comunitarios por los Derechos Humanos or Red in Spanish) trains young indigenous community members throughout areas of Zapatista support in Chiapas to monitor and defend their human rights.

So what does it mean to "engage communities"?  Does it mean building a network of volunteer monitors?  Do it mean having the support from the community in order to get into hard-to-reach places (like check points)?  Does it mean having a level of protection from the community?  What does it mean for you to engage the community in human rights monitoring?  Is it important to engage communities?  Why?  Why not?  I look forward to hearing from everyone!

outsider as monitor

Thanks, Kristin, for using WATCH as an example of how an independent view can have a significant impact. We have found at WATCH that our "outsider" perspective is an asset to our monitoring and gives us a different sort of credibility. We have found that there are people working in the justice system who would like to implement changes, but are limited by leadership or their role so they appreciate having an outside perspective that can support them as they work to make changes on the inside. It is a delicate partnership and we have to always guard against carrying out the objectives of others. But if we base our recommendations on what our monitors observe, we increase our credibility. 

A key difference however is that WATCH monitors are members of the community. And I do think that human rights monitoring generally is strongest when it includes a combination of local and outside influence. This is an interesting discussion and I would love to hear what others think. 


Very interesting

Very interesting dialogue concerning monitoring perspectives- insider/outsider or a combination of both- and the qualitative impact this could have on the monitoring process. Having served as a trial observer for the IBA in Equatorial Guinea, my experience is that the approach depends on a number of factors including the nature of the trial (high or low profile, local, mixed or international tribunal); the number of trials (one or many); the nature and gravity of the charges; and the local context (political and judicial - is the level of corruption high, is there significant political interference), and the issue that the monitor is focusing on.

If the main issue is the Court's adherence to internationally recognised fair trial standards and due process guarantees, in my view the credibility of the monitoring process will be enhanced by having external observers.

Actively Engaged Communities sometimes assume greater risks

The examples cited by Kristen Anderson are great examples of empowering and engaging victims in proactively improving their situation.

However, whether or not affected communities or organizations decide to become actively engaged in Human Rights monitoring depends a great deal on how they think their victimizers are likely to react. Documenting and  reporting Human Rights abuses does not by itself necessarily result in greater respect for Human Rights, especially if there are no sanctions and the perpetrators are allowed to continue to act with impunity.  If the intention of the victimizers is to intimidate or terrorize the victims into silence and submission --which here in Colombia is so often the case--they may well conclude that their proactive victims are not yet sufficiently terrorized or intimidated, and may well decide to increase the levels of oppression.

While additional better more comprehensive data may well result in more impressive statistics that are more able to convincingly convey the magnitude of the problem, this does not necessarily translate into increased measures of protection for past and future actively engaged victims. (See my previous post Victims, not their defenders, must always have the last word. under the thread: Principles: What is monitoring, why do we do it, and what are we monitoring?)

-Stewart Vriesinga

Christian Peacemaker Teams

Utilizing the research process itself to advocate and empower

In another thread, Liam brings up the potential of using the research process itself as advocacy in and of itself:

liam wrote:

Also, one of the frequently lost opportunities of field research processes is the advocacy potential of the research itself. Human rights researchers who go into the field to gather data have a tendency to focus primarily on speaking with victims, and in so doing they miss the opportunity to have a broader impact. If field researchers learned some nuanced diplomatic skills which helped them to also carry out more interviews with state authorities, perpetrators, and all other actors who inluence perpetrators, these discussion would have a two-fold impact: they would have a more balanced analysis, but they would also be sending a constant message to these actors that the outside world is concerned about the issues being investigated. This message can be conveyed without making any denunciations or even putting on any direct pressure. Simply by asking about situations and incidents of concern, the researchers is conveying the message of concern.

I thought this was an interesting approach to information-gathering and I wonder if you carry out your research in this manner.  If so, how did it go?  Did it result in the anticipated outcome?  Please share any examples of this kind of information-gathering approach!

Another way to utilize the research process would be to carry out a "participatory action research" process.  We had a dialogue on this topic last year: Participatory Research for Action

Participatory research can create credible and critical documentation at the grassroots level.  Not only can the information be utilized in advocacy and lobbying efforts, the research process itself can serve to create a network of activists, informing organizations working on issues that impact study participants, and directly benefiting the people themselves.

Participatory research is about “connecting victims of human rights violations to the information they need to become active defenders of their right and to develop creative solutions to human rights challenges.” (Chubashini Suntharalingam, Research for Action)

Do you use a participatory approach to your research process for monitoring?  If so, how? 

using monitoring to empower others

At ISHR a participatory research process is integral to our monitoring and advocacy efforts. The monitoring of the international and regional human rights systems that we carry out serves not only as a tool for holding those systems accountable, but it also serves as an information resource for human rights defenders who wish to make use of those systems in their own advocacy. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of those systems gives defenders a more realistic grasp on how and when engagement with them is best tackled. Through a more effective incorporation of these mechanisms into defenders’ advocacy strategies the impact they have on the ground is increased.

We combine this information sharing with training sessions, and we have found that those training sessions are most effectively run concurrently with key meetings of the regional and international systems (such as the Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights). In this way defenders are able to take what they learn from the trainings and begin to put it into practice almost immediately. In order to encourage this engagement the trainings include the development of an action project, whereby participants develop an advocacy strategy that incorporates the international system in some way. We provide them with assistance in developing that project during their attendance of the training course, and with advisory support, once they return to their home countries, to implement it.

The information and training serves to create a community of defenders who understand the potential of the regional and international human rights systems for making a difference on the ground, and in many cases go on to have great success through engaging with those systems. We have collected some of those success stories on our website, here:

In turn, of course, the engagement of these defenders with the international and regional systems provides ISHR with the data that we monitor in terms of how effectively those systems respond to the concerns of human rights defenders, all adding to our ability to create accountability and push for change.

Heather Collister, International Service for Human Rights

Camera Distribution Project

An excellent example of of a collective community strategy I have witnessed here in the West Bank is the camera distribution project by btselem.  This project distributes cameras to high risk Palestinian communities and empowers them to document situations.  This also allows the communities to assess their own risk.


Check it out:

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