International Human Rights Day 2011

Today, December 10th, the international community is observing Human Rights Day to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since its adoption at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Declaration has become a universal standard for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. On International Human Rights Day, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders, celebrate the recent victories of the human rights community, and recognize the challenges that still lie ahead in the global struggle to advance justice, accountability and an end to impunity.

2011 has been an amazing year for human rights defenders. We have witnessed thousands of people taking to the streets to demand fundamental human rights and social justice; ordinary citizens turning into activists by using social media to mobilize protest movements that brought repressive governments to an end; and dramatic changes transpiring – like Tunisia’s first elections, or the encouraging signs of progress in Burma.

The Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP) is hard at work to ensure that technology and science best meet the needs of human rights defenders in these critical times. This past year, our HRP team helped the human rights movement achieve great things. Here’s a sample of our accomplishments:
  • Martus, our secure, open-source information management software for human rights defenders continued to empower many human rights groups worldwide to secure thousands of stories of human rights violations and to use this information strategically to advance their causes. Our new and long-term Martus partners crossed a milestone and backed up to our public servers over 200,000 bulletins, each of which captures crucial, sensitive information about incidents from a victim’s story or from a field investigation.
  • Our Martus team trained two new partners focused on rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people: Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG and AIDS-Free World. Both organizations work in the Caribbean, where sexual minorities face widespread violence, bigotry and marginalization. In the case of J-FLAG, Martus enables the organization to protect the identity of victims of abuse who come forward to tell their stories, to secure the information from their interviews, to report on the types of crimes documented, and to aggregate evidence for future court proceedings. Our support of groups advancing LGBTI rights is opening up new opportunities for helping many more such groups around the world.
  • HRP members produced scientifically sound analysis that is advancing the process of legal justice in Guatemala. In a recent blog post, I described how HRP statistician Daniel Guzmán’s expert testimony in a breakthrough legal case against two former police officers helped score a remarkable victory in the fight to end impunity in Guatemala. I invite you to read Daniel’s first-person account of his expert testimony as published in the statistical magazine Chance. The testimony prompted further investigation that led to the arrest of three former senior officials. I’m proud to report here that, at the request of the Attorney General of Guatemala, our team has prepared statistical analysis to inform the prosecutions of these high-profile officials. We’re honored to support the process towards justice and accountability at this critical time in Guatemala’s history.
  • Our team members are creating an “accountability toolkit” – a set of innovative techniques for identifying patterns of responsibility for grave human rights crimes. To that end, we combine statistical analysis of patterns of violence with information about military and police hierarchy, communication flow and deployment patterns. The combined analysis supports scientific arguments about responsibility for mass atrocities – arguments that are successful in court cases.
  • Through projects that integrated statistical analyses into multidisciplinary human rights work, we engaged in the public debate about human rights violations in Colombia. First, in partnership with Colombian NGO Corporación Punto de Vista, we assessed a methodology for studying conflict-related sexual violence in the country. We identified important opportunities for developing a substantive, quantitative-based sexual violence research agenda. This analysis is now helping to reframe how sexual violence is studied and understood by groups in Colombia and by the United Nations. Second, we strengthened the public debate about the free trade agreements that Colombia negotiates with the U.S. and the European Union. Colombia’s record of violence against trade union members has been an obstacle to finalizing the agreements. HRP’s calculated estimates of trade union member homicides – part of our work with the Colombian Commission of Jurists – brought clarity to this intense debate.
  • We advanced human rights advocacy and the community more broadly by placing human rights at the forefront of academic research and by educating wide audiences about statistical best practices in the analysis of violence. HRP team members presented papers at academic conferences, published articles in academic journals, and offered many public talks. All HRP’s publications are available online.
Benetech's Human Rights Program also received this year great recognition by the media and by experts in the field of human rights. In my Fall 2011 President’s Update, I mentioned PBS NewsHour’s two stories, and complete press coverage of our work is listed on our website.

In addition, our work is praised in a report and recommendation for donors entitled “Human Rights and International Justice: Challenges and Opportunities at an Inflection Point,” which was commissioned by The Atlantic Philanthropies. Based on extensive conversations with experts in the human rights and international justice field, the authors – Jonathan Fanton (former President of the MacArthur Foundation and of New School University) and Zachary Katznelson – provide an overview of the state of the field along with concrete recommendations that aim to stimulate more philanthropic investment in it. Among their recommendations is that NGOs be trained to collect, analyze and use data effectively, since the impact of their advocacy depends on establishing credibility through good data. They state: “An investment in Benetech to allow it to train leading NGOs in how to gather, verify, and use data and evidence could significantly raise the quality of information.” In another section they add: “[Benetech’s work in] human rights data collection and analysis … should grow at least tenfold.” We’re deeply grateful for this strong support of our work.

Looking ahead to 2012, training NGOs in collection and effective use of data, and developing new technology tools to enable these efforts will be core components of our agenda. In that regard, we recently got
terrific news about our Martus project. First, last June, the HRP received a generous multi-year grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to develop the next generation of Martus. The new Martus will harness today’s emerging technologies in order to ensure that human rights organizations, journalists and other social justice actors achieve more with the invaluable stories that they collect. It will make data visualization and comprehension, as well as information collection and sharing much easier by integrating mobile applications, cloud hosting and innovative tools while maintaining the highest level of security. We’re so excited to embark upon this new project!

Moreover, in September, our Martus project received a 2-year grant from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to train partner African human rights organizations that gather information about violations against LGBTI people. The award will enable us to increase the capacity of local human rights organizations in Uganda and key Southern African countries to sustain a long-term monitoring and documentation effort. We’re delighted about the opportunity to advance the strategic goals of local NGOs working to end discrimination against LGBTI people.

The year 2011 has shown in many ways that the arc of history is bending toward justice. But the road toward justice is long and nothing is inevitable. Many challenges to global respect of human rights still lie ahead, and many more groups around the world need our help. In 2012, we will also continue to carry out multiple, high-stakes projects in which we provide scientific assistance with statistical analysis of violence. True to our organizational values, our team is working hard to ensure that the upcoming projects we undertake in the service of the human rights community are the right ones to do and that we do them right.

There are a lot of things that – for privacy and security reasons – we can’t reveal about our future projects. But we can promise that we’re going to continue to develop innovative technology and science solutions to defend human rights defenders, promote legal justice by strengthening court cases, and advance post-revolutionary accountability. We invite you to visit the HRP’s websites (Martus; HRDAG) for updates about our work, and to join us in celebrating global human rights.


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