Is this work dangerous?
Human rights work ignites controversy. Human rights activists challenge people in power, and sometimes accuse them of very serious crimes. But most human rights work does not occur in conflict zones.
Human Rights Watch sends only very experienced researchers like the E-TEAM into war. Before they go, we review the security of the mission and carefully evaluate the risk. We maintain extensive security protocols for our people in the field.
We put a high priority on the security and health, including mental health, of our staff. All of our staff, not only field researchers, are encouraged to consult mental health professionals whenever they feel the need. We have counselors on call 24/7.
Local activists run the greatest risk.
Ask the E-TEAM a Question in the comments below
The E-TEAM are often on mission in difficult places and can’t respond immediately. We’ll sift through your questions and post the answers as soon as possible.
The Story behind E-TEAM
The films of Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny had appeared in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival many times over the years. So when this filmmaking duo approached Deputy Executive Director Carroll Bogert about going behind the scenes with Human Rights Watch's emergencies team, we knew they were capable of making a great film.
Still, we had concerns. Could we give creative control over to the filmmakers and allow them to make a fully independent film? What if they filmed something that embarrassed Human Rights Watch in the field? We decided to take that risk. More important was the risk to the people whom our researchers were going to meet. Under no circumstances should the film increase the risks that people were already taking in speaking with human rights researchers. We wanted to protect victims and eyewitnesses above all.
So we went ahead, but with some caveats. First, the filmmakers had to respect the researchers' judgment about what they could and couldn't film in the field, for security reasons. Second, everyone in every scene had to understand what the filmmakers were doing there, and give their consent to be filmed. Finally, and most importantly, we had to review the film before it was released- not to delete any scenes embarrassing to Human Rights Watch, but to ensure that everyone in the film still consented to be shown.
After the General Counsel for Human Rights Watch reviewed the film in December 2013, we went back to a lot of people in Syria and Libya. And in the end, we did ask the filmmakers to delete a couple of scenes, and blur a couple of faces. We feel confident that no-one's security was compromised by E-TEAM.
And we're grateful to Ross and Katy to making such a beautiful film. It doesn't tell the whole story of Human Rights Watch's work. But it shows a compelling piece of it.
What are human rights?
Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled on the basis of their common humanity. They include civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.
Human rights are drawn from various cultures, religions and philosophies from around the world over many centuries. They are in force at all times and in all places. Human rights protect everyone equally without discrimination according to race, sex, religion, political opinion or other status.
How are human rights defined?
After the Second World War, the founding countries of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which set out the fundamental rights of all people and declared them a common standard of achievement for all nations. Since then more than two dozen global treaties, as well as many regional agreements, have provided a legal foundation for human rights ideals. When a government signs one of these treaties, it takes on legal obligations to uphold human rights.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Civil and political rights primarily protect individuals from state power. They include rights to life and liberty, fair trials and protection from torture, and the freedoms of expression, religion, association and peaceful assembly.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to housing, education and health, require governments to use all available resources to gradually achieve them.
Other treaties focus on ending specific abuses, such as torture, enforced disappearances and forced labor. Some treaties protect the rights of marginalized groups, including racial minorities, women, refugees, children, people with disabilities, and domestic workers.
In addition to treaties, the United Nations has adopted various declarations, principles and guidelines to refine the meaning of particular rights. Various international institutions are responsible for interpreting human rights treaties and monitoring compliance, such as the UN Human Rights Committee and UN special rapporteurs who work on specific issues and countries. Corporations and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have a duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses.
How are human rights enforced?
The duty to enforce international human rights law rests primarily with governments themselves. Governments are obligated to protect and promote human rights by prohibiting violations by officials and agents of the state, prosecuting offenders, and creating ways that individuals can seek help for rights violations, such as having competent, independent and impartial courts. A country's failure to act against abuses by private individuals, such as domestic violence, can itself be a human rights violation.
However, when governments are responsible for human rights violations, these protections are often inadequate. In these cases international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council or the Committee against Torture, have only limited ability to enforce human rights protections.
More frequently, governments that commit human rights violations are held publicly accountable for their actions by nongovernmental organizations. Some organizations provide direct services such as legal counsel and human rights education. Other organizations try to protect human rights by bringing lawsuits on behalf of individuals or groups. And organizations such as Human Rights Watch use factfinding and advocacy to generate pressure on governments to change their policies.
What about human rights in armed conflict?
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, is a separate but related body of international law. Unlike human rights law, which applies at all times, the laws of war only apply during armed conflicts. The laws of war do not prohibit war, but set out rules on the conduct of hostilities by both national armed forces and non-state armed groups in order to protect civilians, provide for the humane treatment of all prisoners, and reduce wartime suffering. While customs of war have existed for thousands of years, international treaties restricting warfare date back about 150 years. Most commonly recognized today are the Geneva Conventions as well as treaties banning certain weapons, such as the Land Mines Treaty.
What about prosecutions of rights violators?
Individuals who commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, may be prosecuted by their own country or by other countries exercising what is known as "universal jurisdiction." They may also be tried by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court, which was set up in 2002 to try individuals responsible for very serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
How Can You Help Stop Human Rights Abuse?
Become a media activist
“In darkness, abuse takes place.
- Fred Abrahams, E-TEAM
By naming and shaming human rights abusers, we put pressure on governments to change. You can help by spreading the word about Human Rights Watch's research. Make it impossible for government officials to say, "I didn't know. I hadn't heard."
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Who are the staff at Human Rights Watch?
Our staff is composed of 76 different nationalities. We are lawyers, journalists, diplomats, country specialists, fundraisers, public health experts, former United Nations officials, accountants, and even a physicist or two. We speak more than 75 languages.
What does it take to be a researcher at Human Rights Watch?
Researchers at Human Right s Watch are highly trained professionals with a wide range of skills. They have profound knowledge of the countries they cover- history, language, social customs -and the issues they specialize in, like women's rights, refugees, or the laws of war. They know how to conduct interviews in the field with victims and witnesses who are often traumatized. They build alliances with local organizations working on the same topic. They speak to the media, handle tough questions on live TV, and compose elegant tweets. Most of all, they are credible, persuasive, and firm in meeting government officials and other powerful people. It's a tall order! And a tough but rewarding job.