Reporting Killings as Human Rights Violations Handbook

Reporting Killings as Human Rights Violations Handbook

How to document and respond to potential violations of the right to life within the international system for the protection of human rights

By Kate Thompson and Camille Giffard

Handbook links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Part I: Essential Reading - Part II: Identifying a Potential Violation - Part III: How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings - Part IV: Responding to the Information Collected - Part V: Where can you Seek Further Help? - Appendices
I. Essential Reading: section links...
1. Introduction - 2. Using This Handbook - 3. What You Can Achieve By Taking Action - Summary of Part I



Do not let the size of this handbook worry you. You do not have to read the whole book in order to benefit from it and you do not have to be an expert to use it. However please read this part carefully as it will assist you to handle cases properly.

If you become aware of information indicating that there may have been an unlawful killing, but you cannot or do not wish to take action yourself, do pass it on to someone else who can.

In order to acquire a good understanding of the overall process of preparing and submitting an allegation of unlawful killing you should read the entire handbook. However, it is designed so that each section may be read independently and not necessarily in sequence. You can dip into the handbook to obtain answers to specific questions, but it is recommended that if you are serious about submitting well-founded and well-prepared allegations then you should read the whole book carefully. It is also strongly recommended that you read all of this part before you go any further to familiarise yourself with basic ethical and security principles.

This handbook aims to be as practical as possible. This means that it has avoided exploring the academic or theoretical nature of concepts in too much detail. A large amount of academic writing already exists on the subject of the right to life and unlawful killings. For this handbook to be of practical utility in the field, we have attempted to ensure that it is a manageable size and that information is easily accessible. This means that it has proved necessary to be selective about its content. Those who feel they wish to pursue the topics raised in the handbook in more detail, or to research more complex legal arguments or jurisprudence, are provided with a selection of contacts and references in Appendix II. This also provides information for organisations or individuals who may wish to seek further information or assistance.

Do not forget that, apart from the procedures created specifically to deal with unlawful killings, many of the mechanisms described may also receive complaints and allegations concerning a large range of human rights violations. Much of what is said would be equally applicable to such complaints. Also, as the focus of the handbook is the reporting of unlawful killings, the discussion will emphasise the requirements for making such reports effectively, but where such requirements are not fulfilled it may be worth considering making a complaint on the basis of another right.

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2.1. Outline of core chapters

Submitting an allegation is about knowing what information needs to be provided and where to find it. The quality, and consequent credibility, of the allegation will depend almost entirely on the information you have recorded about it. This means knowing which facts to record, which questions to ask witnesses, how to obtain further information and how to record all information in a full, accurate and detailed way. You will rarely get the opportunity to fill in the gaps; so the process starts the moment you hear a report of an unlawful killing. In addition it helps to have familiarity with both the legal and practical contexts of unlawful killings and an understanding of the objectives and likely results of submitting the allegation.

The handbook addresses the various stages of this process in the following core sections:-

Part I - Essential Reading

This part contains essential background on using the handbook, terminology used in the book and advice on principles and policies which should be considered by you and your organisation in pursuing these cases. You are strongly urged to read ALL of this section.

Part II - Identifying a Potential Violation

This part aims to give you the tools to analyse a report of an unlawful killing and to decide whether it is an act which should be reported to an international human rights mechanism. It contains an introduction to international law to assist you to understand the principles and procedures discussed in the rest of the handbook. It discusses the notion of the state's responsibility for the protection of the right to life, as well as providing some detail about different categories of killing, which may require a specific approach, or to which different legal standards apply.

Part III - How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings

The objective of this part is to offer some guidelines on what information to collect about unlawful killings, how to collect it and how to use it. It highlights those pieces of information that are essential to any allegation, provides some pointers on how to carry out an interview with witnesses, and identifies the kind of supporting evidence which can be collected in order to strengthen an allegation or make a criminal prosecution possible.

Part IV - How to Respond to the Information Collected

This part introduces the various mechanisms available for reporting allegations of unlawful killings, particularly at the international level, provides guidance on how to choose between them, and explains how best to prepare and tailor your submission to the particular type of mechanism selected.

Part V - How to Obtain Further Assistance

This part makes some suggestions on where to turn for help if you feel you cannot act on the allegation, need advice on a particular point, or require expertise that you or your organisation does not have.

Appendices - These contain legal instruments, forms, contact lists and diagrams that you will find useful in your work.

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2.2. Terminology

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2.3. Essential policy issues

Readers should be aware that it is impossible to fully, and adequately, address the issues raised in this section in a handbook of this nature and size. However they are issues that are absolutely crucial for you and your organisation to consider carefully when you are engaged in reporting killings as human rights violations. It is recommended that some time should be spent thinking about these points and in the case of organisations, adopting policies which are appropriate to the purpose of your organisation, to the context of the country, and to the way you wish to work. For some of you this may involve making decisions about the specific purpose of your organisation - is it about campaigning, lobbying, representing victims, advocacy, education, providing therapeutic support to victims and witnesses or, a combination of purposes?

2.3.1. Security

In reporting and documenting human rights violations you should exercise great care not to create unnecessary risks for anyone, be it yourselves, other members of the organisation, or the people who are assisting you with a case, e.g. victims or witnesses. There are certain dangers inherent in human rights work, particularly for local NGO staff, but it is important for human rights workers and fact-finders, coming either from outside the country or from other regions of the same country, not to forget that there may be consequences for those they leave behind. No one should be placed at risk on account of an over-enthusiastic individual. It is rare to be in a position to offer protection to those persons whose allegations are being recorded, yet those who are not too afraid to come forward often believe that speaking to persons coming from the outside offers some kind of protection. You should make sure that they have an opportunity to give their informed consent (see below) to the interview and to the potential use of the information recorded.

You should also be aware that when working in a sensitive political climate certain groups will feel threatened by your work and may wish to know more about your work to obtain or destroy evidence. This could be by stealing or destroying the hard evidence that you have gathered and/or intimidating witnesses (or worse).

You should, therefore, ensure that the information which you collect in the course of gathering evidence on a case, is kept securely. You need to protect the evidence itself and the people who have supplied you with it. This is especially important in the case of the identity and personal details of witnesses whose lives may be endangered should information pass into the wrong hands. Some practical steps, which can be taken, are detailed in Part III Chapter 3. However, we cannot overemphasise the significance of establishing policies and procedures within your organisation, which are known to all who work there and are strictly regulated. There should be a secure location for information and evidence and only a very limited number of people should know how to access it.

2.3.2. Professional ethics

Any number of ethical questions can arise in the course of human right investigations, such as deciding who should deal with those witnesses who have been sexually assaulted or with children, or deciding how far to take an investigation of a human rights violations (when should you be gathering evidence yourself? when should you pass it to the police?). In particular, there are issues of confidentiality that can be very challenging when you are trying to take action on a case. A great deal has been written about the conflicts between duties towards the greater community and the relationship between professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, and those who provide them with information or are their clients. In cases involving deaths and ill-treatment, these duties can find themselves in opposition, because while the duty towards the community at large might suggest that all violations be made public for purposes of the greater good, professional ethics generally dictate that confidentiality between lawyers or doctors and their clients be respected in the best interests of the individual. This is a dilemma which is most likely to concern doctors, and a number of ethical codes and declarations exist for the medical profession, but it is present in any professional relationship, including that of a human rights worker and an interviewee.

Your organisation will have to make decisions about such matters, and although these may evolve as a country situation develops, you should do your best to have an organisational policy which is known to the staff. Doctors and other healthcare professionals, who wish to seek advice on how to deal with such ethical conflicts, should contact a medical organisation, either national or international, which should be able to provide support and guidance on the best way to proceed. Other professional organisations should be able to provide similar assistance to their members, as should less formal professional support networks or specialised NGOs. (See Part V and Appendix I for details of organisations who may be able to assist).

2.3.3. Informed consent

This concept is about ensuring that people understand the consequences of making an allegation or giving evidence in relation to a human rights violation. Being fully informed puts them in a position where they can consent to proceed with a matter knowing the potential benefits and negative consequences of the proposed course of action. The difficulty arises in assessing what "fully informed" means in each different situation and with each different person you deal with. It is not advisable to adopt a systematic approach, but to assess each particular situation individually.

There needs to be a balance between making sure that the interviewee is aware of any potential risks involved in providing information and obtaining as much useful information as possible. Emphasising the potential risks may discourage the interviewee from talking, but it would be unacceptable to prioritise information over the well-being of an individual for whom there is a real risk.

One approach could be to decide this on the basis of the purpose for which you would like to use the information. The golden rule could be that no-one should ever be named or identified as a source unless they have given their express consent - if your intention is to name an individual, you must obtain his or her consent to that course of action and inform them of all its implications, both positive and negative. However, if your purpose is, for example, to have an informal interview with someone you do not need to identify, perhaps because you are merely seeking corroboration in your own mind of a statement by a previous interviewee or general information, it may be counterproductive and unnecessary to emphasise the potential risks.

Genuine risks should never be concealed, but it is important to assess what that actual risk is in each case rather than overestimating it and unnecessarily reducing the value of an interview. In addition, you should always make it clear to the interviewee what, if any, follow-up protection you can give, but be clear as to the limits of your ability to do so.

Do not forget that consent should be informed AND freely given. Individuals should not be pressured into giving their consent where it is clear that they do not wish to after having been fully informed of the implications.

2.3.4. Support and rehabilitation of witnesses, relatives and friends of the victim

For the human rights worker, there is an inevitable sense of excitement involved in fact-finding and collecting allegations, and upon the discovery of evidence. For the witnesses and those close to the victim however, talking about such personal, and often horrific, suffering may provoke very different responses. In certain ways it may be therapeutic, but it can also cause profound psychological or even physical stress. It is imperative to offer as much genuine and effective support as possible to these people, both during and after the interview. However it is also important not to make "false promises" by committing yourself to assisting someone and then failing; such a let down could compound the person's suffering. Rather it is more important to give realistic and frank advice about the nature of the support you, or your organisation, can give.

In the case of those interviewed outside a detention context, efforts should be made to provide them with support and rehabilitation. This could mean referring them to professional counselling, or it could merely involve letting them know that the door is always open. Organisations are encouraged to pursue this question further with the specialised agencies or networks listed in Appendix II. In the case of interviews with persons still in detention, you may be more restricted in what you can do and it is crucial that the detainee understands the limits of your power to prevent them from feeling misled and deceived.

Rehabilitation must be seen as an integral part of working with victims and witnesses of human rights violations. They are sharing something profoundly personal and painful with you, and although you may see it as contributing to positive change, or furthering a cause, it may create suffering for them - in return, your obligation is to make sure that they are offered the support they need to deal with their suffering and to turn the process into a healing one.

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2.4. Practical advice

Like the previous section, this part aims to give you some guidance on decisions which your organisation should consider making about how you work. This is also a subject about which there is a lot of specialised literature and there are NGOs that deal solely with helping other NGOs to build capacity and advise on the practicalities of organising a work environment. We aim here to give you a flavour of the type of issue that you or your organisation may like to consider.

The way you work can have a profound impact on the success of the work you do and it is important to consider how your organisation operates and whether this is the best way for the type of work you are engaged in.

When working on a complex case dealing with a mass of evidence and complicated legal concepts, it can help to work with others to be able to see through the complexities. Working as a team on a case can also enable you to see evidence from different perspectives. One person may see inconsistencies, which another cannot perceive; another may have a particular skill, e.g. ability to interview a traumatised witness, which another does not; and so on. Above all, working as a team may assist individuals from feeling overwhelmed by a case. Collective decision-making can have its tensions but can also be helpful, as you feel the benefits of each other's advice, experience and expertise. This may be particularly reassuring when you are dealing with a case where it has become apparent that you may not be able to achieve what you originally set out to do. A team may be able to work together to find an alternative resolution for the case and for the witnesses, victims and complainants who are seeking a constructive and just outcome.

However, your organisation may not have the resources to support enough staff so working as a team may be difficult. In addition, working as a team can bring tensions, especially if there are disagreements about how to conduct a case. You may feel it would help to work with another organisation to obtain support (in which case you should bear in mind issues of confidentiality discussed in Chapter 2.3. above) or to obtain some training in managing teamwork. You should, at least, actively consider whether the way you work is the most appropriate for your aims.

You are most likely to be able to work effectively for human rights in a well-organised, well co-ordinated workplace. It is important that people's roles are clear, work is not being duplicated and that everyone understands the way the organisation works, especially in relation to ethical and security principles. Clear and constructive systems of work should be developed which support the work of your organisation. (For some tips about how to develop filing systems see Part III, Chapter 2). You may find it helpful to have regular meetings to decide policies, co-ordinate your work and to review the cases you are dealing with, to decide the best way forward.

It is also good practice to ensure that staff are not over-stressed and are taking sufficient breaks from their work.

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Handbook links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Part I: Essential Reading - Part II: Identifying a Potential Violation - Part III: How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings - Part IV: Responding to the Information Collected - Part V: Where can you Seek Further Help? - Appendices
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