Co-written with Kim Howell

Every year on December 10th, human rights organizations mark International Human Rights Day. To highlight our 20th anniversary and Human Rights Day, we’re sharing 20 significant human rights video moments.  Compiled by the entire WITNESS team and presented in chronological order, the list reflects instances where video (or film) made a difference: as evidence in a court or tribunal, galvanized mass mobilization or outrage, marked a turning point, a new use of technology for human rights, and more.

This is not a list of ‘best’ or ‘worst’ moments. It is likewise not a complete list of important moments in human rights history. In fact, we’ve curated 19 moments and would like to hear from you: what is a human rights video moment that you would add to this list? We invite you to read, watch, share and comment.

WITNESS’ 20 Powerful Moments in Human Rights Videos

Nazi War Crimes on Film at the Nuremberg Trials
Germany | 1945

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As part of the International Military Tribunal (the Nuremberg Trials) that indicted 24 former Nazi leaders and tried 21 of them, a four-hour compilation film titled The Nazi Plan was screened as evidence of war crimes. The film, and compendium pieces screened by the Allied prosecution teams, included footage from propaganda films made by the Nazis, testimony by Nazi leaders, and Allied troops’ footage of the liberation of concentration camps. Marking the first time film was used as evidence in an international court, the footage had a tremendous impact at the trial and “helped lay the groundwork for the contemporary international war crimes tribunals to admit video evidence at trial on a regular basis.”
Violent Tactics Against Peaceful Civil Rights Demonstrators
United States | 1963

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Following the arrests of nearly a thousand children at a civil rights demonstration, over a thousand black citizens marched in peaceful protest of institutionalized discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. In response, “Bull” Connor of the Birmingham Police Department ordered that the demonstrators be assaulted with fire hoses and attack dogs. Footage and photographs of this egregious assault on citizens circulated via mainstream media, generating not only bad publicity for bigoted Birmingham authorities, but also rousing unprecedented public support for the civil rights movement. In President Kennedy’s words, “the events in Birmingham… [had] so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body [could] prudently choose to ignore them.”
Interview With a Dictator
Guatemala | 1982

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While in preproduction for a new film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, filmmaker Pamela Yates combed through archival footage from a documentary she made 30 years prior about the genocide of Mayan communities in Guatemala by the military government in power. In an outtake interview with General Rios Montt, included in Granito, he asserts that he is in full and sole command of his army.The footage was screened during evidentiary hearings and helped convince a judge that Rios Montt should be arrested and indicted for genocide. He is now awaiting trial. (This was updated and corrected with help from Ms. Yates.)WITNESS partners the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has documented the forensic recovery of victims of El Mazote Massacre and Mayan human rights activist Jesus Tecu Osorio survived the Rio Negro Massacres and uses film and education to advocate for justice.
Bringing Famine to the World
Ethiopia | 1984

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A 100-year drought combined with a ruthless anti-insurgency military campaign to create the worst famine the world had ever, quite literally, seen. Viewers across the world saw news reports on the desperate situation unfolding in Ethiopia, and they were unable to ignore the harsh reality. Though many debate its efficacy, an unprecedented outpouring of attention and donations was loosed. The BBC’s coverage inspired a series of high profile fundraising efforts including “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and the Band Aid/Live Aid concerts. These were criticized by African and other activists for being condescending and insufficient response to the root causes of the famine. However, serious debate did follow on ways to prevent and respond to famines without propping up repressive governments or destroying local markets.
The Tiananmen Square “Tank Man”
China | 1989

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On June 4, 1989, the day after the Tiananmen Massacre, which saw a violent military attack on democratic protesters, an ordinary civilian defiantly stepped in front of a column of approaching tanks, stopping their advance. Repeatedly, he moved into the lead tank’s path. He then climbed onto the tank to speak with the soldiers inside, before he was ushered away and disappeared into the crowds. Photographs and video footage of the “Tank Man’s” extraordinary actions circled the globe. Time Magazine later named him “The Unknown Rebel” and one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. This lone citizen has become an iconic and inspiring image of nonviolent protest against oppressive government authority.
Nelson Mandela Walks to Freedom
South Africa | 1990

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Cameras rolled as Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years of imprisonment for militant resistance to South African apartheid. The image of Mandela, walking free alongside his wife, was one that many people in South Africa and across the world never thought they would see. The video captured a rare moment where the hopes and struggles of decades could be seen, quite literally, resolving. A similarly momentous event occurred earlier this year, when Aung Sang Suu Kyi accepted the Nobel Prize that she was awarded while under house arrest in Burma.
The Beating of Rodney King
United States | 1991

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Using an early consumer camcorder, George Holliday filmed 81 seconds of the beating by five Los Angeles police officers of Rodney King.  A clip of the video circulated on news programs and set off a national and international cry for an investigation into police tactics, police brutality and racism in the U.S. At the trial of four of the officers involved in the incident, the defense team slowed the video frame-by-frame to bolster the position that King had resisted arrest and that their use of force was justified. A second trial, concluded in 1993, determined that two of the officers had violated King’s civil rights. An early example of citizen journalism, the incident also spurred the founding of WITNESS in 1992.
Death of a Father and Daughter During Genocide
Rwanda | 1994

Note: video is graphic. Cameraman Nick Hughes is one of few Western journalists in Rwanda at the outset of the country’s genocide. Recorded on April 11, 1994, just days after the assassination of President Habyarimana from a window of a tall building in the Gikondo district of Kigali, the graphic footage shows a road lined with corpses and a man and woman (a father and daughter) pleading for their lives before they are beaten to death. The video was broadcast on British TV and then worldwide within 24 hours. It made little immediate difference, but later would be introduced as evidence during the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Hughes also testified before the ICTR.
IndyMedia Forges Alternatives to Mainstream Media for Global Protests
United States | 1999

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Indymedia forever changed the nature of mass protests during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and they used video to do it. With motivations ranging from anarchy to environmentalism to labor rights, protesters were united by their opposition to the WTO and their dissatisfaction with mainstream media. They organized large-scale and dramatic protests, and circumvented the press by broadcasting news and videos on their website. As peaceful protests escalated to vandalism, the strong police reaction was captured on video. Indymedia presaged the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement in many ways. Both used internet technology to circumvent a distrusted mainstream media. Both engaged in massive and creative protest actions. And both focused generally on economic disparity, while containing a loose coalition of activists.
Through the Eyes of Afghani Women
Afghanistan | 2001

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Founded in 1977, RAWA is the oldest political/social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan. As early as 2001 members of the organization were using video to document human rights abuses like this public beating of two women by Taliban members. They often used hidden cameras at great personal risk. The videos found wide audiences among people across the world concerned about the U.S. invasion of the country in November 2001, following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. that September.
Contemporary Slave Labor
Brazil | 2005

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Landowners in rural Brazil, mostly in the Amazon region, enslave more than 25,000 workers every year. An investigative video by human rights groups (co-produced by WITNESS) tells the story of men who set out in search of work and are taken to isolated ranches, only to find that they have been lured into debt bondage.  It was widely screened at meetings with Brazilian government officials and civil society advocates. In May 2012, Bloomberg News and others reported that lawmakers in Brazil “approved a constitutional amendment … that strengthens punishments for landowners and others who force people into slave-like working conditions, in which thousands … are trapped.”
Botched Execution of a Dictator
Iraq | 2006

Note: video is graphic. The official video of Saddam Hussein’s execution by the Iraqi government was silent and sanitized. Two unauthorized videos told a different story. The first video contained sound and showed the death, displaying the intense taunting and degradation that the convicted man was subjected to. A later video showed Hussein’s body with a large neck wound, demonstrating serious mistakes in the execution. In October 2011, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s killing by a small band of opposition forces was dramatically and graphically captured on video. The videos raise serious questions about the treatment and human rights of war crimes perpetrators as well as the process of justice for these individuals.
Systematic Police Brutality Sparks Resistance
Egypt | 2006

A mini-bus driver who tried to stop a fight between his brother and a police officer was one of many people brutally tortured by Egyptian police. The police filmed his beating and rape, intending to shame him further. But it backfired. Prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas shared the video and dozens of other examples he collected, galvanizing simmering anger at the police force. It led to public outrage and the unprecedented arrest, trial, and sentencing of two  officers involved. Abbas’ efforts to create an online record showing the pattern and extent of abuse was threatened when YouTube deactivated his account. It was later restored, but the incident highlighted the fragility of online archiving and contextualization for human rights related video.
Climate Changes Reaches New Reality
Global | 2006

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Although global warming had been in the public consciousness for nearly three decades, Al Gore’s blockbuster film An Inconvenient Truth brought the issue to the fore in an entirely new way. Liberated from dry newscasts, global warming became far more visible, more tangible, and more relatable for mainstream viewers. Video has long been tied to climate change, with footage from Hurricanes Katrina (see the award-winning documentary Trouble the Water’s inclusion of survivor’s video) and Sandy clearly demonstrating the human rights implications of extreme weather. A live video feed of oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon spill, continuing unabated for days, became a major way for people to connect to that disaster.
Neda Agha-Soltan’s Death Rallies the World
Iran | 2009

Note: video is graphic. Described as the “most widely witnessed death in human history,” Neda Agha-Soltan’s death occurred during the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution. She was a bystander at a protest when she was shot by a sniper, and an anonymous bystander captured the moments with a cell phone video. The video spread around the world within hours, and she became a rallying cry for the opposition and a symbol of the power of citizen journalism. It also sparked controversy around the ethics of sharing user-generated footage and victims’ rights.
Saffron Revolution as Burma Rises Against a Regime
Burma/Myanmar | 2007

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The Saffron Revolution rocked Burma (also known as Myanmar) almost exactly 20 years after the first wave of protests against the military dictatorship in 1988, and this time the revered population of Buddhist monks joined the swelling demonstrations. Although the government tried to block all information from the outside world, courageous civilians smuggled out footage. The videos inspired both excitement at the strength of the protests and horror at the brutality of the crack-down.
Livestreaming From the Front Lines of the Revolution
Libya | 2011

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Mohammed Nabbous set up a video livestream channel which he called Libya Alhurra, covering his besieged city of Benghazi, Libya early in 2011. A former information technologist turned citizen journalist he lost his life while trying to film the aftermath of a bombing on a residential neighborhood. Livestreaming, either from a home studio, laptop or via mobile phones, using popular apps like Bambuser, became a hallmark of activists’ using video to share events as they unfolded during the Arab Spring. Livestreaming also was widely employed in the Occupy protests across the U.S. and world in the autumn of 2011.
Video Turns the World’s Eyes to an African Warlord
Uganda | 2012

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Kony 2012 broke the conventional wisdom about viral videos: it was 30 minutes long instead of three, and showed a remote human rights issue instead of a funny cat. Yet it reached 100 million views in only six days–faster than any video, ever. It presented an organization’s quest to use political pressure to apprehend Joseph Kony, a warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Sharply criticized for over-simplifying both the problem and the solution, the video nonetheless made Kony a household name. It also sparked conversation about agency and audience in the use of video for change.
ICC’s First Verdict Renders Justice for Child Soldiers
Democratic Republic of the Congo | 2012

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The International Criminal Court (ICC) is the world’s preeminent international court, able to prosecute crimes such as genocide. The recent case against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, marked the court’s first ever verdict and also the first time that video was used as evidence on this level. In pre-trial meetings, the prosecution viewed A Duty to Protect, a video about child soldiers in the DRC co-produced by AJEDI-Ka and WITNESS. The video was part of advocacy working towards ensuring charges of forced recruitment of child soldiers would be brought against Lubanga. In fact, it was one of the war crimes for which he was found guilty.
What Are We Missing? 
Where? | When?

Add your moment in the comments below. 



12 thoughts on “20 Powerful Moments in Human Rights Video

  1. This is so heart breaking and very powerful footages. One footage that came to mind is the Muhammad al Dura footage from Palestine. It needs to be added to this list.

  2. Hi Matisse,

    I don’t know if you consider this relevant, but I’m an American Pakistani and for our country, this was a huge moment in human rights videos. Two young teenage boys were incorrectly accused of being petty thieves in a small neighborhood in Sialkot, Pakistan; and the entire neighborhood as well as the police attacked them brutally and finally hung them in public. This was all caught on camera. This episode revealed police brutality as well as what happens when the justice system in a country breaks down and the frustrated public begins to take action into their own hands, usually, in countries like Pakistan, in the form of horrendous mob attacks. I could send you video links if you like. They’re extremely disturbing but left an indelible effect on Pakistani society and led to much debate about the justice system.

  3. Witness, really disappointed you included “Kony 2012” in this list. Hundreds of millions of views did not advance this horrific human rights situation and the film was produced with the intention of promoting the organization itself, vs. helping the many victims and survivors of this conflict. The film also misinformed millions of people and this negates any supposed “good” the film generated.

    US involvement in this conflict for publicity/public relations purposes was buoyed by this fraudulent Invisible Children movie and “movement” and it has proven ineffective, much like the #Kony2012 film itself.

    If this is the kind of shallow work Witness promotes, it is hardly fulfilling its promise as a leading human rights organization. Shameful.

    1. Whether you agree or not with the Kony2012 video, it was a milestone and should be here. If I’m not mistaken, it was the most viral human rights video ever. And if you dig deep into the post, you can follow the link into perhaps the best and informed discussion by Sam Gregory and others of the agency and audience of it,

    2. Sally, appreciate you voicing your opinion here. I think Pedro’s response summarizes the points I would have made. This is a list about videos that had an impact defined in myriad ways in my opening paragraph. One aim of the list is certainly to generate discussion and debate.

  4. What came to mind as I read this post and looked over the list was Abu-Ghraib…but I don’t know if there was video associated with Abu-Ghraib or just photographs. So it might not qualify for “incidents where video/film made a difference” exactly.

    This is a powerful list of very moving pieces here, thank you for curating this list.

      1. Do not agree. There’s a lot of video in the Abu Ghraib images. 19 just in the bits that Salon published ( ) and if you’re after exposing HR violations / speaking truth to power, it is a big miss not to have it there.

        Collateral Murder could be included also, as could the de Menenez surveillance footage from London that forced the police to admit that they assassinated an innocent man.

        Good list, though, and the only one of its kind I’ve seen. I am researching how video intervenes in security politics and stumbled upon it while doing a timeline of videos important to international security. I haven’t seen any other like this, good work!

        1. Yes we acknowledged that video was part of the Abu Ghraib story – but again still images were the vast majority of what was shared.

          Collateral Murder indeed was an important moment as was the surveillance footage of the Ian Tomlinson killing in London. Thank you for mentioning both of those.

          Appreciate you taking the time to comment. When your timeline is ready please consider sharing it with us here.

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