With millions of images of abuse circulating online and new human rights struggles erupting across the globe, our work is deeply intertwined with the daily reality of the citizens participating in these struggles.

There is a reason we are so connected. With so many people today affected, directly or indirectly, by crises and human rights crimes, and with many more participating in the act of witnessing by sharing stories and images, the ties that bind us are stronger than ever.

In October, a number of human rights stories hit the news, striking at the core of WITNESS’ work:

  • The Guantánamo Videos: Is the U.S. military’s method of force-feeding Syrian prisoner Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab torture? The discussion around this shifted tectonically when it turned out that the government had filmed the act of force-feeding. Classified tapes are being offered as evidence, and a judge is deciding if they should be made public. Diyab himself weighed in in favor of publicizing the videos: “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today.”
  • Charges Against a Cambodian Human Rights Laureate: We were reminded of just how risky it is to wield a camera and shine a light on abusive practices when the Cambodian government fabricated a charge of “incitement” against the Martin Ennals Award-winning human rights activist Venerable Luon Sovath, threatening him with imprisonment. WITNESS has worked extensively with Luon Sovath, who is also know as the “multi-media monk” for his groundbreaking work to expose land grabbing and other human rights abuses under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. The Venerable is pictured above at our 2010 Focus For Change Benefit. 
  • Delayed Justice for Syrian War Crimes: Due to funding cuts, it may be years before Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad is brought to trial. In the interim, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of videos, often shot on mobile phones and uploaded to Facebook or YouTube, that provide essential evidence of his crimes? We recently released a series of videos providing basic information about archiving war crimes footage in order to preserve evidence and prepare for the long road to justice.

And here are a number of ways that WITNESS is working to end human rights abuse with the power of video:

  • Video as Evidence: What role can video play in tipping human rights cases in favor of the defendant, and not the perpetrator of abuse? If it were up to us, a much bigger one. This is why my colleague Kelly Matheson is creating the Video as Evidence Field Guide for criminal justice stakeholders. We’ve started publishing sections from the Guide on the blog like this one on how to film a secure human rights incident scene.
  • WITNESS resources available in more languages: With a growing number of people under threat precisely because they are filming, it is a matter of urgency to get resources into as many hands as possible, so that journalists, human rights defenders, and citizens can be safer and their videos can have help achieve justice. This month, we launched access to crucial WITNESS resources in four languages (Arabic, French, Portugese, and Spanish) in the hope we can get to more people in need.

The following stories of courage reminded me that our efforts to strengthen documentation by firsthand witnesses, media collectives, and affected communities is vital in pressuring key decision-makers and shifting power balances in favor of human rights defenders.

  • Our consultant Victor Ribeiro, who works with our partners (organizations like Advogados Ativistas, Artigo 19, and Conectas,) to expose and end police violence in Brazil, visited our office in New York. Victor shared in detail the threats, arbitrary arrests, and challenges that media activists face when exposing systemic police brutality. In Brazil, where rampant institutional impunity is the rule (activists estimate that 10,000 people a year die at the hands of the police), video seems to be one of the few hopes left in the fight to reverse decades of injustice and sanctioned murder. For example, one video shot by Victor helped disprove wrongful charges against a peaceful 16-year-old protestor, prompting her immediate release.

  • No evidence to-date has led to accountability for the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala, Mexico. So far, only the town’s mayor has been arrested. We know from our work on feminicide in Mexico that the ramifications for those who seek justice for murders and disappearances are severe. The dire nature of this situation was powerfully demonstrated to me at the Oslo Freedom Forum, where investigative journalist Marcela Turati Munoz, Co-Founder of Periodistas de a Pie, gave a first person account.
  • Also in Oslo was ex-prisoner turned human rights defender Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made his point visually by showing large, compelling images of ordinary Russians currently detained by President Putin.
  • This courage to expose the truth in the face of threats, as exemplified by British-Syrian journalist and activist Rami Jarrah, was celebrated with the human rights community at WITNESS during our 10th Annual Focus for Change Benefit on October 16. I am grateful for the enormous support that comes from this community.

Judging by October alone, there is a lot more work ahead of us in the fight to expose human rights abuses. To win that fight, we need to buckle up and strengthen the ties that bind us together.


Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm is the Executive Director of WITNESS. YAT_HeadshotThis post is part of a monthly series from Yvette on WITNESS and our work. You can follow Yvette on Twitter @yvettethijm.

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