Lecture exposes imaginary constructs that surround human rights investigations.
In a lecture entitled “Human Rights Investigations and their Methodology”, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the rigorous work her organisation carries out to make violators of international law accountable for a range of crimes against humanity. At the event held on Wednesday, 24 February, at the Institute, Ms Pillay gave an in-depth presentation of the methods involved in human rights investigations to a full house. Her first academic lecture in Geneva was targeted to the Institute’s students who may one day be involved in this type of work as investigators or human rights lawyers.
Ms Pillay began by pointing out that human rights investigations are neither as exciting and partisan as some believe nor as dry and forensic as others might think. She laid out the main goals of investigating human rights abuses, which are to identify the perpetrators, help victims and draw attention to violations in order to bring about positive change. The recommendations of human rights reports can be implemented to upgrade national and international law to ensure that major incidents do not reoccur.
The High Commissioner described the main components of human rights investigations, which are the gathering and evaluating of information, identifying the nature of the crime, determining who is responsible and recommending remedies. “The main purpose is to set the record straight and establish truth”, she said. Specific elements of investigations can include identifying mass graves, interviewing witnesses and mapping exercises which aim to chart major incidences over a period of time. New technologies being used include satellite imagery and live broadcasting of trials.
Throughout her speech, Navi Pillay stressed that “investigations have to be well thought out and meticulous”. She gave examples of the consideration that must go into every detail. In the interviewing of victims, for example, the language used, the interview location and the tone of the interviewer all have to be chosen carefully. Investigations must be accurate, impartial and legally sound in order not to be refuted. Subsequent reports can have far-reaching ramifications but when investigations are not carried out properly, it is to the detriment of the victims, Ms Pillay added.
She described some challenges which human rights workers face when looking into abuses, such as when governments try to hinder investigations or intimidation of witnesses occurs. Two particularly problematic situations for inquirers are investigating sexual abuse and protecting witnesses, both of which can be difficult due to many factors, she said.
While there are many similarities between criminal, journalistic and human rights investigating, there are some key differences, Ms Pillay said. There is a lesser burden of proof in human rights investigations. They take place over a limited span of time and investigators cannot go under cover. In human rights investigations the goal is not always to make the findings public as is the case with journalism. There may be cases when it is better to keep information confidential. Witness protection is paramount, she said.
She gave many examples of investigations and their outcomes in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, East Timor and others. One example she gave was that subsequent to an accurate OHCHR report in Colombia, individuals were tried and sentenced, and the government compensated victims for failing to protect them. Although results are not always immediate, Ms Pillay stated, recommendations from reports can be implemented further down the road. Successive governments can make changes suggested by human rights reports.
Ms Pillay summed up her speech by specifying that the goal of this in-depth work is to “fight against impunity and contribute to the combat against future abuse” and that human rights investigations are “indispensable tools in the pursuit of justice”.
Ms Navi Pillay was nominated as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in July 2008. From 2003 to 2008, she served as judge on the International Criminal Court. In 1999, she was elected Judge President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which she joined in 1995. In 1967, she became the first non-white woman to start a law practice in South Africa's Natal Province, providing legal defence for opponents of apartheid. More information on Ms Pillay can be found here.
An edited transcript of Navi Pillay’s presentation can be read here [pdf].
A 16 minute interview of Navi Pillay is available here.
The Institute organises numerous public events throughout the year which focus on major world issues. The calendar of events is available here.