Training young people to monitor human rights

Since 2000, the Human Rights Observatories Network has worked with youth groups in various regions of Brazil, inspiring them to learn about human rights and to learn how to report on and to monitor their communities’ access to rights.

The Center of Violence Studies, an interdisciplinary academic center of Sao Paulo University, monitors and studies the increase of urban violence, whose main victims are poor young people between the ages of 15 and 25.  In addition to violence, there is increasing evidence that the denial of economic and social rights may contribute to repeated violations of civil and political rights.  While the Center has produced many reports about the conditions of Human Rights in Brazil, it had become clear that the information and debate produced did not reach the communities most affected by violence and poverty.  Thus the Center developed the Human Rights Observatories Network in an effort to involve young people as observers and writers of life’s condition in their communities, thus strengthening the discussion of human rights in those previously unreachable areas.

There are three groups of participants in the Network: Observers, Monitors, and Coordinators.  The Observers are young people from age 17 to 25 (the period during which the greatest numbers of serious human rights violations are suffered).  To be chosen, they must live in the area being studied and must be involved in community activities.  Because most of their tasks will involve reading and writing, they must enjoy these activities.  The Monitors are university students of human sciences (sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, etc.).  The Monitors are in charge of groups of Observers, leading debates and helping them gather and organize their information.  Coordinators have graduated from college and must have experience in research and education.  They work directly with both groups, discussing experiences and the produced material with the Observers and evaluating the processes with the Monitors.

There are six recommended areas for observation to address human rights in everyday life: violence, discrimination, education, health, work and income, and culture and leisure.  In general terms, the aspects to be observed in each thematic area are cases of rights violations experienced by local residents, positive examples or good practices in promoting human rights, and the local impact of public policies to promote the right in question.  In the experience of the Network, the human rights observations always come from the young people’s everyday experiences.  During periods of group discussion, they relate these experiences to a certain topic, later transforming the dialogue and discovery into texts.  The texts are sent to another Observatory group which reads and discusses the narrated experience and the relations made with the human rights topics.  This second group then writes a letter back to the one which wrote the text, commenting on their impressions.  In this process of multiple discussions, the information and reports are improved and so is the young people’s conceptions of human rights.  

The Network attempts to strengthen the cooperation between the different groups of civil society and to encourage them to participate in the elaboration and implementation of public policy, as well as improving its relation to human rights.  As a part of the Network, all the participants in the project discuss the information gathered by various Observers.  In these exchanges, they share possible local measures and try to find alternatives to combating the violence. Creating communal spaces for these discussions encourages the involvement of young people in community associations, and helps to reduce human rights violations by rebuilding young people’s social identity. 

There are two different publications which have sprung from this project.  The Citizens’ Report is a formal report which is put together by all three groups.  It contains information from the Observers and Monitors, as well as comments from experts who have read the contributions written by the young people.  LUPA is a news magazine by and about the Observers.  It is much more informal than the Report, and it is aimed at the youth audience in the communities involved in the work.

Started as a project in the metropolitan region of Sao Paulo, the Network has spread its program into five other metropolitan areas of Brazil and into one rural area.  Since 2002, the project is also being replicated in Caracas, Venezuela. The project is not always easy. It can be very difficult to observe and talk about the problems contained in one's own life. In addition, it sometimes be challenging to get all of the participating groups to work together. Because the Network and its research are part of the Center of Violence Studies at Sao Paulo University, academic concerns must be considered alongside the concerns of the community associations the Network works with and with the Observers, Monitors, and Coordinators themselves. While universities sometimes produce research which cannot be put immediately into practice, practice is often the principal focus of those directly involved in the communities. This difference can cause frustration.  To avoid problems, it is fundamental to bring these different interests together from the start to clarify the objectives of the project.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

There are two particularly important elements of this tactic. The first is the fact that the Network, an academic research organization, involved those whose human rights were being violated in the study of human rights violations that they were doing. This sort of involvement increases community agency in a project that might otherwise seem far away and irrelevant to their daily lives. By sharing their stories and participating directly in writing about the rights violations that had occurred, the Brazilian youth Observers were able to become much more involved in the research process. It is often possible for organzations to involve community members in human rights research and this can provide a much greater benefit than research done on its own by outside academics. Second, the Network created a structure in which the Observers could share and process their information. Without this structure, it would have been very difficult for the researchers to collect the information that they were looking for and the quality of the information would have been much lower. In addition, the process would not have been as beneficial to the Observers themselves. A set structure can be very beneficial for an organization as it looks to research human rights violations with the help of community members.