Addressing the documentation needs of human rights defenders

Documenting abuse plays a critical role in securing justice by protecting and defending human rights. Defending human rights is an important and rewarding profession, but those who work to uncover and document the truth face enormous risk. To better understand the community that is documenting and taking this risk, we recently conducted a survey with the goal of better understanding what can be done to better support the brave and inspiring people who do this work. This blog post shares some of the results and outlines possible steps forward.


This effort builds on previous discussions. In March, 2015, a few of us (Nicolas Sera-Leyva of Internews, Kristin Antin of the engine room, Friedhelm Weinberg of HURIDOCS, Rory Byrne of Security First, and others) who were in Manila to attend the Responsible Data Forum on Human Rights Documentation, and RightsCon discussed the gaps in support that we’ve noticed, including:

  • a place to go to get advice on the practice of human rights documentation (not just a specific tool),
  • advice on security practices,
  • case studies on what has worked (and hasn’t worked),
  • discussion of methodologies, tools, and approaches to human rights documentation, and
  • how to make informed choices on these.

We believe there are others, too. But in order to begin filling these gaps, we needed to find out more about the needs of the practitioners, the gaps they see, and their ideas for ways to address them.  To that end, we put together this short survey, shared it with our networks, and now we are sharing our analysis of the response in this blog post.

From October 5 to November 6, we heard from a total of 11 people. This is less than we had hoped but we believe we still collected some useful information. Thank you to those who contributed to this effort!

This initiative isn’t owned by any one organization. Instead, it is an effort being coordinated by a few committed practitioners with the blessing of their employers to better understand how to support human rights documentors.

Notable outcomes from survey results

We weren’t necessarily surprised by the survey results, but we’re glad to be able to confirm a few of our assumptions. Some of the most notable outcomes from the survey results include:

When it comes to challenges, practitioners are most concerned about putting themselves and others at risk, and knowing which methodology and tool to choose. This tells us that:

  1. organizations need more support in secure and responsible practices for data collection, storage, sharing, analysis and archiving, and
  2. the options available for documentation methodologies and tools to support the process need to be better defined and compared to help practitioners make the right choice for their situation.

The responses to our question on what kinds of opportunities would increase and improve support to practitioners varied greatly. There wasn’t a particularly bad option, nor was there a clear winner. This tells us that we should do further research and surveys to understand what kind of support would be best for types of audiences (i.e. geographic, human rights issue focus, goal of documentation). We should also expect to spend time experimenting with different types of support (i.e. online trainings, in-person workshops, translated material, community of practice, guides) to learn more about what works well with audiences.

When asked about additional support, practitioners are likely to participate in online meetings with peers, and document case studies and advice. From this we gather that practitioners are eager for more opportunities to connect with and learn from their peers.

You can read our full summary of the survey results here.

Moving forward

Based on what we’ve learned from these surveys and our conversations with practitioners, we want to propose a series of online discussions in early 2016. We’re still in the process of identifying topics – please reach out to Kristin if you have ideas and/or if you want updates on these events!


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