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World: Amnesty and Human Rights Watch -- How They Work (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are both known for their authoritative reports shedding light on the abuse of human rights across the world. How do these organizations compile their data? How do they evaluate sources? And what challenges do they face in the countries in which they operate? In the first of this two-part series, RFE/RL speaks to researchers from both organizations about their daily work.

Prague, 24 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In 1961, London lawyer Peter Benenson read about a group of students in Portugal who were tried and imprisoned for drinking a toast to "freedom" in a local restaurant.

The story prompted Benenson and other like-minded lawyers and journalists to write an "Appeal for Amnesty" in the "London Observer" newspaper. The appeal told the stories of six political prisoners jailed in countries across the world for expressing their political or religious beliefs. It called on governments everywhere to free such prisoners -- and on "London Observer" readers to start a letter-writing campaign to the governments involved, on the prisoners' behalfs.

Reader response surpassed all expectations, and Amnesty International was born. Today, Amnesty International has become the world's largest global human rights organization, with more than 1 million members in over 100 countries. The organization continues to focus on gaining the release of prisoners of conscience, ending torture, political killings and disappearances, and abolishing the death penalty throughout the world. It publishes more than 140 country reports each year, detailing the abuse of human rights.

Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, started in 1978 to monitor the compliance of Soviet-bloc countries with the human rights provisions of the landmark Helsinki Accords. Human Rights Watch, which has some 150 full-time staffers, also publishes a comprehensive yearly global survey on human rights violations and has offices in Moscow, Tashkent, and Tbilisi.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have become the bane of repressive regimes worldwide, earning condemnations from a panoply of governments -- something they regard as a badge of honor. But the watchdogs do not limit their criticism to acknowledged authoritarian states. In its annual country report released in 2002, Amnesty International denounced the United States over the way in which its authorities detained some 1,200 people in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Amnesty said the United States had put in doubt long-accepted human rights standards, such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and would encourage other countries to regress in their human rights records.

With so many potential violations to track in so many different countries, how does Amnesty International select the cases it focuses on? RFE/RL spoke with Ivan Fiser, a Central Europe researcher at Amnesty, who explained some of the inner workings of the organization. Fiser says that true to its original mission, Amnesty International begins by collecting information on individual victims of human rights violations. Often, many individual cases tally to form a pattern of abuse.

"We take up cases that are illustrative of the most serious human rights abuses taking place in a particular country and it is only with individual cases that we can show patterns of abuse taking place or that we can illustrate the gravity of the situation. So there will always be a face behind an Amnesty concern, even when the concern is very general. We will, in our reports, use information about individuals," Fiser says.

Over its years of work, Amnesty International has built up a network of correspondents and researchers with in-country contacts, whose job it is to check that the information obtained is accurate, even if this means delaying a potential report while the facts are confirmed.

"We are constrained by the need to check all the information before we go public and in this way minimize any inaccuracies, because our whole reputation depends on accuracy and even the slightest mistake will cause great harm to our organization and more importantly, to the human rights victims who we are here to protect," Fiser explains.

Amnesty International, whenever possible, uses primary sources, sending researchers to speak to individuals or the families of those whose rights have been violated. Those reports are then corroborated with reliable secondary sources, in much the same way a journalist is expected to operate.

Matilda Bogner, head of the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that her organization follows similar standards. Even though the identities of respondents often have to be protected, they are usually personally interviewed by a Human Rights Watch representative before their story is detailed in a report.

"The bulk of people that we talk to don't want to be quoted directly, unfortunately, because there is such a lot of persecution and persecution for talking to international organizations such as ours. We don't have any problem with not citing names in our reports, so long as we know who the person is ourselves. Then we just put in a pseudonym and we don't have a problem with doing that, in terms of it being authoritative, so long as we know that our own researcher trusts that source," Bogner says.

Sometimes, when allegations of rights abuses are collected but there are not enough primary sources to corroborate the charges, Amnesty International will forward the documents to the respective government's judicial authorities, with a request that they be investigated. The response, says Fiser, is often instructive:

"The way in which the authorities respond is also indicative about the quality of the information that is available about an incident. If the response of the authorities is credible, then that will cast a very big shadow on the report of a human rights violation. On the other hand, as in a great number of instances that I've been involved in, the response of the government is so inadequate that it only corroborates the suspicions that we had to begin with," Fiser says.

Working in a country that exercises censorship, restricts its citizens' rights, and keeps a close watch on foreign residents imposes special challenges for those trying to catalog human rights abuses. Bogner, who has headed the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent for the past two years, says she and her assistant are guided in their investigations by whistle-blowers.

"Unfortunately, because we have limited resources, we're often being reactive in our research here rather than proactive, to an extent. People come to us and they have complaints and we often follow up on those complaints. And if we get a lot of complaints in a certain area, we tend to focus in on that. It's a way of assessing what's going on in the country -- who is complaining to us about certain issues. But it's true that we will focus in on certain issues and perhaps people who are dealing with other issues won't come to see us because they just won't know of our existence," Bogner says.

The authoritarian nature of the Uzbek regime also means Human Rights Watch feels it cannot employ local staffers to conduct its research: "A [local] person, if they were genuinely committed to human rights reforms and trying to work well, would be put under the negative pressure of threats and possible imprisonment, being detained, having family members threatened for their work and so on. Anyone else would be under a lot of pressure to cooperate with the national security service, to report on everything that is going on in our office back to the authorities."

Even if the authorities were more cooperative, it is clear that with only two full-time researchers in Tashkent, covering a country of 25 million people, Human Rights Watch cannot hope to catalog every human rights abuse in Uzbekistan. Priorities have to be set.

Acacia Shields, who oversees projects in Central Asia from the Human Rights Watch office in New York, tells RFE/RL that every year, the organization sets its research agenda based on trends observed in each individual country and based on where researchers believe they can make the biggest difference: "We take topics and we narrow them down so that they're manageable and so that our recommendations, which are a key part of our reports, can be specific and targeted, so that both governments and international actors can have very specific benchmarks for progress. And we use those reports in our advocacy to push for tangible and concrete improvements."

Bogner lists some of the topics that Human Rights Watch has focused on in recent years, for Uzbekistan: "Over the last few years, we have prioritized looking at persecution of [observant] Muslims within the country. There's been a crackdown against Muslims who follow Islam outside of the strict controls of the state, and thousands have been imprisoned and thousands more have been persecuted in other ways. So we have been following that crackdown fairly closely. Connected to that but also separate is the issue of the way law enforcement authorities treat detainees. So the issue of torture is something that we have been putting a lot of energy into over the last few years."

Bogner says there are other alleged rights abuses in Uzbekistan of which she is aware -- among them child labor in agriculture -- but Human Rights Watch has not had the resources to investigate further.

One frequent criticism leveled by governments at foreign human rights organizations is that those organizations are intrusive and unnecessary. The United Nations has committees that investigate alleged human rights abuses, so why have private groups that are not accountable to governments?

"I think it's pretty commonly held these days that NGOs have a value to civil society -- that they're a vibrant part of the ongoing dialogue and that there's a need for NGOs to be part of the exchange between governmental organizations, such as the UN, and civilians -- regular citizens of a country -- who might want a diversity of opinions and perspectives, in terms of the information they receive," Shields says. "I think there's a recognized need for organizations such as Human Rights Watch. In addition, there really are a lot of things that we can do in certain countries that governmental or inter-governmental organizations don't take on and that includes engaging with the victims in order to provide them with a liaison to groups like the UN."

What is undeniable is the growing influence and media attention that groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have garnered in recent years. In part two of this series, we examine what effect campaigns launched by foreign human rights organizations have on the actions of authoritarian governments.

(Farangis Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)