From flight logs to homeschooling, Human Rights Watch grapples with Covid-19 challenges

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) expert recently spent days on WhatsApp contacting relatives of two Kurdish men from a remote Turkish village who were abducted and later lynched…

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) expert recently spent days on WhatsApp contacting relatives of two Kurdish men from a remote Turkish village who were abducted and later lynched by soldiers. “At first, when I reached them, the relatives didn’t trust me. It took many hours building an understanding with them,” the colleague told me.

And one reason why this was so hard was Covid-19.

2020 was a tough year worldwide for businesses and nongovernmental organizations alike, as they battled to keep operations running and support staff during the pandemic. The same is true for Human Rights Watch and other NGOs whose donations fell during the pandemic. With 490 staff spread across 50 countries, we research and expose human rights abuses, to persuade governments to protect rights.

Almost a year into the pandemic – which looks likely to be with us well into 2021 – it’s worth asking: how are we doing? What went well? What badly? And what can we learn? As an HRW manager who’s been involved in these efforts, I put these questions to various of my colleagues.

What emerges is an organization facing clear challenges. Externally, we must remain effective in documenting human rights abuses, such as the Turkey case, at a time when we often cannot rely on HRW’s basic model – on-the-ground research and talking to people face-to-face. And internally, we must care for staff, thrown overnight into working from home.

We also faced the challenge of documenting a surge of human rights abuses related to the pandemic itself in many of the one hundred countries we work on. Governments struggled to react to the pandemic, and while some took appropriate steps – for instance, to protect vulnerable groups – responses that violated human rights were common too. Within weeks we had published documentation and analysis of a wide range of abuses and guidance on approaches to tackling the pandemic.

The story behind these headlines is about how we have been getting work done.

Safe distancing

Remote interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights abuses are difficult, particularly in finding people to talk to and in building trust. Caring for interviewees’ well-being and safety is a priority. In-person research, such as on crises in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh, had to comply with strict Covid-19 guidelines to protect staff and those we meet.

Colleagues found ways to be creative. The Children’s Rights Division assembled research from dozens of HRW staff, gathering nearly 400 interviews with parents and others in 55 countries to assess the impact on children’s rights of school lockdowns. And the entire research for a groundbreaking report on Syrian and Russian military attacks in Syria’s Idlib province was remote, using satellite imagery, photos and videos posted on social media, and flight spotter logs.

Accessing people in confined settings, such as prisons, immigration detention or residential institutions for people with disabilities or older persons, was very difficult, so we worked with lawyers, family members and staff, to gather and cross-check information on what was happening behind those closed doors.

HRW meetings with government officials remained effective when they went online, says Kenneth Roth, executive director. A scheduled meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March was cancelled because it could not happen in person. But, “when we spoke for an hour in October on video, it felt normal” Roth said.

Yet video can limit sensitive conversations, said John Fisher, UN director in Geneva. “Difficult advocacy files, such as the debate in the Human Rights Council in June on systematic racism and police violence in the US, were even harder because we couldn’t informally approach diplomats for a chat over coffee”.


Were these the best ways to keep the work going? Some research was dropped because remote work was too difficult. What rights abuses did we miss? All research met HRW standards, but some was less satisfactory, researchers said, because, for instance, it was difficult to find methodologies that overcame the very patterns of inequality highlighted in the pandemic.

Neela Ghoshal, associate director on LGBT issues, who has felt the strain as a single parent with two small children, spoke about the challenges dealing with the digital divide. Without being able to meet face to face, it’s too easy to exclude those who don’t have regular access to the internet or phones, she said. “The work with poorer and more grassroots activists is not impossible, but it requires significantly more effort.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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