Interview with Peter Bouckaert, Senior Emergencies Researcher for Human Rights Watch
21st May 2002 New York, NY
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I'm the Senior Emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. I have a law degree from Stanford University and I've been working for Human Rights Watch for about four and a half years now. I work in crisis zones around the world including Kosovo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Afghanistan, and Israel, just to give a few examples.
Human Rights Watch and Emergencies
Human Rights Watch works throughout the world in more than seventy countries and much of their work is very long term projects in which we are trying to influence governments to change practices that abuse human rights; that means, for example, work on prison conditions in many countries, police abuse, trafficking in women. For most of those projects we go to those countries, we conduct the research, and we come back and we write the report, and often times it's a cycle that takes six months to a year from conception to completion. When we're dealing with crises like Kosovo or Rwanda, where many people are dying at a very rapid pace, it's very important that we can work in a different way. So the nature of the emergency work is to be on the ground while crises are occurring, to report in real time from the ground and to try to impact human rights abuses and to prevent human rights crises from growing out of control.
Emergencies Research – Challenges, Examples, Methodology
There are several challenges about our emergency work that make it very different from our other work. First of all, the security conditions are often very bad, and we have to be very careful not to get injured or killed during our missions. Secondly, we work at a very intense pace, interviewing many people on a daily basis. We work long hours. Thirdly, we have to work very closely with the media; we often spend several hours each day just speaking to the media. So, it's a much more intense kind of approach to our work.
In Chechnya we had to be very concerned about kidnapping - a lot of foreign people were being threatened with kidnapping. In Kosovo, we tried to reach many places where abuses were occurring, and that meant that we often times had to break through the Serbian military lines to reach areas in the center of Kosovo where abuses were occurring. In many places I spent several hours a day just talking to the media. That's very different from our normal work where we go on mission and often don't talk to media while we're on the ground. But it is important, when things are occurring on a daily basis, that the information gets out and that we are able to impact [the situation] in as quickly a way as possible.
I think it's important, first of all, that in most of the countries we work on, we have a very long work history. In Kosovo, we started working in the early eighties, and it was in the nineties that things got bad. The same thing goes for Afghanistan. We've been monitoring Afghanistan since the days of the Soviet invasion and the abuses that were being committed there. So, when I go into a situation like Afghanistan I have a lot of background research that I can rely upon. We often have a reputation in the countries, which makes it a lot easier to work; we have a lot of name recognition, especially in the former Communist countries because of the excellent work of the Helsinki committee.
Soon after September 11th, we decided that it was important to monitor both the U.S. ground campaign in Afghanistan, as well as the local factions in Afghanistan. So, I spent most of the last year months of 2001 in Pakistan monitoring the conduct of the war, mostly the U.S. bombing campaign. And then in early 2002, I took part in a mission, which went to Northern Afghanistan - where we looked at the situation for Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are one of the largest ethnic communities in Afghanistan, and they were closely associated with the Taliban regime, because most of the leaders of the Taliban were Pashtun. Once the Taliban regime fell, very serious offenses were committed against that community. So we spent about a month in northern Afghanistan visiting small communities of Pashtuns throughout the region, traveling to five different provinces.
It was fascinating research. It was my first trip to Afghanistan, a country that has been devastated by decades of war. It was very interesting just to travel to these very remote areas and go to these mud villages and sit down with the people and talk about what had been happening. What we found was a story that had not received a whole lot of attention but that was truly shocking. In all three of these five provinces, Pashtun villages had been completely looted blind. Everything had been taken from them. Many people had been killed; some women had been raped. These abuses were being committed by armed factions directly involved with the current administration in Afghanistan.
So when we came back, we tried to draw a lot of attention to the fact that the war lords, who were responsible for creating the mess in Afghanistan in the first place, and for bringing the Taliban back to power, were back in power in Afghanistan and were involved in some of the same abuses that they had committed during an earlier era. And our work had some serious impact. Our report was translated in Dari, and General Dost, one of the main Uzbek commanders and the deputy minister of defense for the new interim administration, called a meeting of all of his commanders and read the entire report to them - which is a very important accomplishment because human rights work doesn't often take place at this local level.
Oftentimes when people talk about our work they talk about the coverage we receive in the New York Times or on the CNN evening news, but for us, it's equally important to see what's going on domestically because we are trying to change the conditions for people's lives. And, often times, those changes take place when local commanders change their behavior, not through the international pressure alone.
Mission Conditions and Researcher Responses
Conditions in Afghanistan were very difficult, we had to sleep, in a bunker in Mazer-i Sharif, which did not have any electric light, and we had to use oil stoves to keep ourselves warm. At the same time, obviously the conditions we lived under often were better than those faced by the Afghan people. There are millions of people in Afghanistan who live in nothing more than a tent who have been displaced by this conflict. And there always is enough of an international NGO infrastructure to accommodate us so we can stay in homes that are built of concrete. Yes, we might have to sleep in sleeping bags and wash with cold water and use less than ideal toilets and facilities like that. But, for the most part, you know, it's not so uncomfortable in these places.
It is very physically taxing. On many days we had to drive six or seven hours on very rough roads, just bumping along at very slow speeds just to reach these villages. The food often was difficult to find and certainly wasn't of the tasty variety that you get here in New York or in San Francisco.
The one thing that always impresses me wherever I go, it doesn't matter whether it's the Balkans or Afghanistan or Israel, is the hospitality of the local people. You know, people always ask me when I come back, how can you do this work? It must be so physically and emotionally taxing. But, the truth is that people constantly invite you into their homes, they offer you a cup of tea, or a coffee, or some food. They just have the most wonderful hospitality, and they understand the value of our work. Now, what really makes our work sustainable in the long run is that interaction with the peoples whose suffering we are documenting.
Emergencies Work and the Use of Photography
I take photographs for several reasons. One of the reasons is that I have a bond with the people whose lives I document and it's important for me to be able to take that home with me and reflect on that. It also serves to refresh my memory. Just today, I was talking to a journalist about events in Kosovo back in 1998 and I turned back to the photographs I had taken then, to reconstruct and refresh my memory.
But photographs are also very important for the work we do. The basis of our work remains the solid documentation of human rights abuses, the text. In order to draw people into the work and really make them understand what this work is about and what the impact of the abuses we are documenting is - a picture really can tell a thousand words. It is very powerful when you match the text with photographs, when people can see the faces of the people that are telling their stories in our report.
I get a lot more feedback from the public and from people who are interested in our work when we post a photo gallery or when our reports have photographs in them. That's what people talk about when they talk about our reports. When they come back to me, they talk about the photographs they saw in the report. So, photographs are of great value and we have to understand that we're working in a multimedia world. People are familiar with seeing photographs and reading text and with seeing film images also. So it's important that we appropriate those tools for our own work. Because just a report, with 100,000 words in it, it is often very difficult for people to read.
Work in Jenin was of very great importance because the world attention was focused on Jenin at the time and there were vastly different allegations being made from the Israeli side and from the Palestinians side. The Palestinians were talking about a massacre of hundreds of people, and the Israelis were claiming that they conducted a very full anti-terrorist operation.
So we felt it was important to go into Jenin as quickly as possible and to conduct a very careful research project to establish exactly what happened. And we took three of our most experienced researchers and spent a week in the Jenin refugee camp investigating events. It was very difficult working conditions. We had to sneak into the West Bank and we had to sneak into Jenin. There was still a lot of unexploded ordnance in the camp. People were literally blowing up around us as we were working in the camp. And the destruction we saw was just massive.
What we did conclude was that there was no massacre of the scale alleged by some Palestinian sources. But very serious violations of the laws of war took place in Jenin. We documented the killings of 52 people - 22 of those were civilians who were killed in circumstances that were unjustifiable and in some cases deliberate. In one case, for example, an elderly wheelchair-bound man was hit and run over by a tank. We documented massive destruction inside the camp. We counted the homes and found that more than 140 homes had been flattened by armored bulldozers - leaving some 40,000 people homeless.
We found that the Israeli army had used human shields. They had taken Palestinian from their homes and marched them through the street in front of them, holding them by their back collars. We found that in one case, a group of Palestinian men had been taken from their homes and put on a balcony and the Israeli soldiers shot from behind them. Also, during the operation, medical access and humanitarian access to the camp was completely banned, and that certainly complicated the situation. We documented the case of one woman who was wounded in the first days of the operation just 200 meters from the hospital and she spent some 36 hours in her home while ambulances tried to reach her before she died.
In Jenin, we worked under extreme pressure. We wanted to provide a balanced report, and we did. We wrote a report that described the kind of Palestinian militant operations that existed in the camp; the suicide bombing operations, which had gone on in the camp; and the military challenge that Israel faced in the camp. But in the end we found that Israel committed very serious violations, including possible war crimes, in Jenin refugee camp.
It is important in our work that we look at the abuses by both sides, and we do that because we're equally concerned about Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians as we are about the Israeli army committed excesses during its military operations. It is the impact of the civilians on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East, which is of primary concern to us.
Immediately after the release of our report, we had a three hour meeting with the representatives of the Israeli army. We laid out our findings in great detail and we explained to them how we had reached our conclusions and the legal argents we had used to support our concerns about the behavior of the Israeli troops. The legal representative of IDF was quite taken aback by the evidence that we presented to him, certainly about the evidence presented about the use of human shields. Just a few days later, in response to a court challenge brought by a human rights group, the Israeli army issued a clear order to their troops to stop using civilian shields during their military operation. That was a great accomplishment, but certainly much remains to be done in the Middle East. This crisis is quickly spinning out of control and civilians are more and more becoming the main victims of much of the violence in the Middle East. There needs to be a strong international role in stopping the kinds of abuses we've been documenting now for nearly two years.
Whenever I leave a place, it is always difficult to say goodbye. I do not want to tell people, “I hope to see you soon,” because that means that they will still be in trouble the next time that I come. Certainly the Middle East will continue to be a main focus of our work, as will be many other countries. I don't know where I'll be next. There are many crises around the world; I could be back in Kashmir or back in Israel or Afghanistan. I hope to put myself out of a job but I'm not absolutely optimistic about any kind of resolution of the main crises around the world in the near future.