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
III. How to Document Allegations of Unlawful Killings: section links...
1. Introduction - 2. Basic Aims of Documentation - 3. Evidence - 4. Investigative Framework - Summary of Part III



There is no prescribed list of types of supporting evidence. The type of evidence you may wish to use will depend very much on the allegation you are trying to prove and will need to be identified on a case by case basis. You should try to identify, on the one hand, evidence that supports the specific case, and on the other, objective evidence that helps to show how the allegation fits into the overall picture. It pays to be creative and the possibilities are vast. Two forms of evidence, medical evidence and witness evidence, are of particular importance in the case of investigations into killings and will be addressed in detail, but examples of other types of evidence include:

Such information is most easily found in NGO reports. However, the value of such reports will vary according to the reputation of the organisation in question. Reports that tend to sensationalise the situation in a country will carry very little weight, and reports of national NGOs may be treated with some caution because, although they have a close-up view of the situation, they may also be perceived as less objective. If these are the only reports available, they should, of course, be submitted. Ideally, however, where they exist, reports by large international NGOs, which are generally respected for their accuracy and reliability, are the best to opt for - they can then be supplemented by the reports of smaller and national NGOs.

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3.1. Medical evidence

Medical evidence is probably the most important type of evidence that you can obtain and can add strong support to witness testimony. Technical procedures for medical personnel carrying out physical examinations on victims are described in a number of other specialised manuals and documents and will not be addressed in this handbook (see Appendix I). However, it is important for anyone wishing to report allegations of unlawful killings to understand the role of medical evidence, the difficulties it raises, and some very basic measures that may be taken to record and understand such evidence.

Predominantly, you will be dealing with forensic medicine to establish the causes and origins of injuries, which is a specialised field. In many countries, the same health professionals carry out both therapeutic and forensic functions, but where possible, you should seek the assistance of someone who has forensic skills and understands the distinction between the two forms of medicine.

It can assist with:

Physical examinations will need to be carried out by specialised medical personnel, not only because of the technical knowledge required, but also because if the reports are to be of use in court, it will be necessary to establish that they have been drawn up and interpreted by qualified professionals.

As a guide the following should be noted:


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3.2. Witness evidence

Witnesses are likely to be a CRUCIAL source of information. As the evidence of witnesses is so important, the training of personnel in interview techniques should form part of the preparation any NGO makes before attempting to document allegations. A thorough and complete guide is beyond the scope of this handbook. However, the following guidelines and suggestions are designed to be used as an aide memoire and are not intended to replace full professional training of personnel.

Remember that reports and witness statements can be obtained from a wide variety of individuals:

Aims of interviewing a witness:

  1. Find out everything the witness knows about a case
  2. Gather sufficient information to evaluate a witness's reliability and credibility
  3. Discover any additional witnesses or physical evidence, which the witness may know of
  4. Obtain enough background information to enable the witness to be contacted in future
  5. Have due regard and respect for the witness and use the ethical and security principles which underpin the documentation of human rights violations

3.2.1. General considerations

When conducting an interview, you should bear in mind the following general considerations:

3.2.2. Witness statements

Don't forget that the same principles of informed consent discussed in Part I apply to witnesses particularly when you are taking a written statement. In the case of an informal discussion with a possible witness, which you do not intend to cite, it may not be necessary to go into detail, depending on the circumstances. Remember never to name an individual without his or her consent. The purpose of witness statements is to help to understand exactly what took place, and they should, therefore, be as detailed as possible.

In addition, if you intend to initiate court proceedings at the national level, you will need a written statement. The statement should describe, in detail, the relevant facts known to the person. There is no particular format for such a statement, but it should be as informative as possible. Such a statement does not need to be physically written by the person from whom the statement is being taken - it can also be written, or preferably typed up, by the interviewer, then read over by or, where the person is illiterate, read out to the person, who should then approve it. It must, however, be signed or thumb-printed. If the statement is to be used in judicial proceedings, it should be signed and dated not only by the person making the statement, but also by the person taking the statement and, where possible, a second witness.

A written statement describing the events and signed by the victim or other witness, particularly those making the allegation, should be prepared wherever possible in a non-detention context. It will not be essential in all circumstances, but helps in all proceedings to reinforce the credibility of the allegation.

Organisations often record such statements by asking the individual making the report, to fill out a standard questionnaire setting out the information required. Your organisation may find it helpful to draft one that is appropriate to your work.

3.2.3. Conducting the interview

You must not put words into the interviewee's mouth.

As a general guide begin with general or open questions (questions to which the answer is unlimited, e.g. "what did you see?", "what do you know about the incident?" rather than, "did you see him fire a gun?" or "did you know X well?"). Such questions may well invite longwinded answers, but ensuring that the content of the answers is spontaneous will enable you to evaluate the quality of the evidence you are being provided with. As the interview continues you can become increasingly specific and fill in general points that have been made by the witness. Before you start

Remember to review, in detail, the discussions relating to informed consent, professional ethics and security. They are central to the interview process and there are certain aspects that you will need to explain carefully to the interviewee. How should you begin the interview?

You should begin by introducing yourself, your organisation, your objectives, and the possible uses to which the information you are gathering may be put. If you requested a particular individual by name, you should explain to that individual how you obtained his or her name. Make sure that the interviewee has no objection to note-taking or the use of recording-machines or interpreters. Address the issue of informed consent and emphasise the confidentiality of the interview itself, subject to the consent of the individual to its use. It is also important not to build unrealistic expectations for the interviewee - you should make sure that they understand that any potential allegation process may take time and can yield limited results. Should you keep notes of the interview?

Keeping a detailed record of your interview is important to ensure accuracy, but you should explain to the individual how these notes will be used and who will have access to the information contained in them. There may be some instances when it is more appropriate to just listen (e.g. in a small police station) and make your notes immediately afterward. By whom should the interview be conducted?

Interviewing an individual, particularly a victim, about a horrific and frightening incident is both emotionally and physically tiring. It is especially difficult where the interviewer is alone, because this requires an ability to ask questions, listen, develop a rapport with the interviewee, handle difficult emotional situations, take notes and watch out for gaps and inconsistencies all at the same time, an almost impossible task. Where the circumstances permit, it is best to interview in pairs, with one person asking the questions and the other taking notes. Even better is where the two individuals have complementary skills, e.g. medical and legal expertise. This helps to make sure that no important points are missed and that the right questions are asked. In order to avoid confusion for the interviewee and to facilitate the establishment of a rapport, however, you should make sure that one of the interviewers has primary responsibility for questioning, giving the second interviewer an opportunity to intervene towards the end. The person who is not asking the questions at any particular moment should be responsible for keeping the notes. Are there any special considerations to keep in mind when using interpreters? What can you do to make the interviewee feel more at ease?

Interviews can be extremely intimidating. You may not have much control over the setting in which the interview takes place, but even small considerations on your part can help an interviewee to feel more comfortable. How can you deal with people who are too afraid to talk?

Some interviews may be conducted in a relatively safe place, but in many cases the surroundings will not be secure. This is particularly the case where interviewees are still in the custody of the authorities. You cannot ensure their safety (see Part I, Chapter 2.3.1. for a general consideration of security issues), but you can take steps not to place individuals at greater risk than necessary. Are there any special considerations to keep in mind when conducting interviews in prisons or other places of group custody?

Awareness of group dynamics and prison structures is important when choosing how to go about interviewing individuals in such an environment. How can you address the sensitivity of the subject-matter?

Interviews can be very sensitive and painful, but you can take steps to minimise the risk of re-traumatisation. For example: What can you do to maximise the reliability of information?

You should not put words in the interviewee's mouth. Always begin with general or open questions (questions to which the answer is unlimited, e.g. "what did you see?"), and then proceed with specific or closed questioning to tease out the detail that you need to make your account reliable and helpful. Are there any special gender considerations to take into account when selecting an interviewer or interview team?

There is no strict rule on this point, and it will depend on the individual interviewee and interviewer. Preferences may be based on cultural or personal factors. In general, it is better to try to have a female interviewer present when interviewing a woman, especially if the account is likely to involve sexual matters. It is less clear-cut with regard to men - they may also prefer to speak with a woman about sexual matters, but in certain cultures this would be unacceptable. Do not forget to take into account the gender of the interpreter. Are there any special considerations to take into account when interviewing children?

Your primary goal when interviewing children must be to try not to do harm. It is very different to interviewing adults, and needs to be treated as such. Interviewers should have some experience of working with children or the effects of an interview may be more detrimental than the potential benefits. Ideally, they should have both experience and expertise, and if they have never done it before, it is advisable to run through a mock interview with another member of the interview team in order to get a feel for the process. The following should be borne in mind:

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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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