The Documentalist

Phones Powerful Human Rights Tools Only When Companies Don’t Side with Repression

Posted in Editorial, Human Rights news by Sarah on August 11, 2011

On August 9, 2011, Katrin Verclas posted a piece at demonstrating the obverse of power of cell phones as a tool for citizen journalism and human rights activism.  As much as we laud the power of mobile technology for helping to call immediate attention to human rights situations around the world, it is sobering to remember that the companies that make it possible for people to communicate and share information via cell phones can be the single largest obstacle to using our phones as powerful tools of protest and awareness-building.  As Ms Verclas reports, mobile phone companies side more often than we would like with the repressive regimes that people–their customers–seek to resist:

Vodafone’s recent decision to shut down its communications network in Egypt and the delivery of pro-government propaganda via text message over its network made the news but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The examples abound: Uganda operators monitored and blocked certain SMS keywords in the advent of the recent election there, pro-Zanu propaganda is widely delivered over Zimbabwean operator networks, Russian mobile operators agreed to ‘police’ the Internet and their networks at the behest of the Russian government, and Belarussian telcos routinely supply information to the security police, including location information of known political activists.

This close collaboration of many operators with repressive states has been going on for some time but there is now a new activist movement forming, holding telcos accountable and to a higher standard. Led by activist shareholders and advocacy organizations like Access, activists point out that the negative publicity of this corporate behavior carries  financial implications that pose a risk to telco investors.

Ms. Verclas goes on to illustrate how activist groups such as Access Now seek pressure telecommunications companies to stop siding with repressive regimes, namely, by pressuring them through bringing liability suits for injuries incurred and lives lost in areas of repressive conflict that could have been prevented if victims had had cell phone service.   The goal of Access Now is to pressure telecom groups to live up to five principles, which are as follows:

  1. Providers should retain complete control over their network at all times and ensure
    that users always have access to it.
  2. Providers have a duty to protect their users.
  3. Providers should uphold principles of non-discrimination and should abstain from filtering their networks, except for the purposes of network security and management.
  4. Providers should uphold principles of transparency, accountability, appealability, and due process in all of their actions and transactions.
  5. Providers should commit to using spectrum allocation in a judicious and equitable manner.

Activists are using lawsuits as a means of putting moral and financial pressure on telecommunications companies to avoid implicitly siding with repression, which is what they in effect do when they think of their bottom lines before the lives of the individuals who use their service.


Update on the Fate of ICTY and ICTR Archives

Posted in Human Rights news by Sarah on November 30, 2009

James Simon, the director of International Resources for the Center for Research Libraries, has been following developments concerning the disposition of the archives of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  The post below was authored by James and summarizes official actions that have been taken or that are being considered vis-a-vis these important archives.


Update on the Disposition of ICTY and ICTR Archives

The final disposition of the archives of the ICTY and ICTR continues to be discussed among the UN’s Working Group of International Tribunals. The UN Security Council and the Secretary-General tied into the discussions of the “residual mechanisms” of the courts after closure of the Tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (these mechanisms include trials of fugitives and contempt cases, witness protection, review of judgments, referrals of cases to national jurisdictions, assistance to national jurisdictions, supervision of sentence enforcement and maintenance of archives).

A recommendation report of the Advisory Committee on Archives (ACA) was circulated among the Working Group on the International Tribunals in Mid-November and submitted to the Security Council in December 2008. The report itself was not made public. However, based on public documents and reports [e.g., S/2008/849 (31 December 2008)], it is clear that the committee and the Working Group both support the preservation of the archives – they have declared that the archives of the Tribunals are the property of the United Nations and therefore must be kept under its control. It is important to note that “Upon the closure of the Tribunals, in the absence of any decision by the Security Council to the contrary, the archives, as United Nations documents, would become the responsibility of and be transferred to the Archives and Records Management Section at the United Nations Headquarters” (ibid).

It is not yet resolved where the archives of the Tribunals should be located and whether the residual mechanism or mechanisms should be co-located with the respective archives. (An additional factor that will affect the decision is whether there should be one residual mechanism or two, and the related question of location.) In the ACA report, the Committee strongly recommended separate locations for the archives of each Tribunal, with a location on the continent of each affected country. It advised that serious consideration be given to the co-location of the archives with the institution that would handle the residual functions. In the Committee’s view, for as long as the archives contain a substantial number of confidential documents, they should not be transferred to Rwanda and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The Committee suggested, however, that when there is no longer a substantial number of confidential documents in each of the archives, the United Nations should consider transferring their physical custody to the respective countries.

The outcome of the December Security Council discussion [S/PRST/2008/47 (19 December 2008)] was that the Security Council requested the Secretary-General “present a report within 90 days on the administrative and budgetary aspects of the options for possible locations for the Tribunals’ archives and the seat of the residual mechanism, including the availability of suitable premises for the conduct of judicial proceedings by the residual mechanism, with particular emphasis on locations where the United Nations has an existing presence.”

That report was issued in May 2009 [S/2009/258, (21 May 2009)]. This report is tremendously valuable, in that it a) states the case for the importance of the archives, b) provides a detailed description of the types of records generated by the Tribunals, and c) values and users of the Tribunal records. It also sets out recommendations of the activities that should be undertaken before the closure of the tribunals (identification of records to be permanently retained, declassifying as much as possible, transferring electronic records to the main archival database).

The report itself does not recommend a path for the residual mechanisms, but lays a case for various scenarios and resultant cost implications. These scenarios range from the minimal level of functions (trial of the remaining fugitives and maintenance of the archives) to the maximal level (multiple trials, protection of witnesses, etc). It also projects a scenario in which the archives are maintained separately from any other residual functions.

Another important section (VII) treats the question of the location of the archives and the infrastructure requirements for the archives.

The Secretary-General’s report addresses request of the Security Council as far as possible at this stage, but stresses that the Security Council and General Assembly will need to make some key decisions before a fuller answer can be provided. It is not clear whether the Working Group will reach agreement on any decisions before the end of the year, especially since the conclusion of Tribunal activities continues to be extended (through 2010 and possibly as late as 2013).

Global Voices: Translating & Aggregating International Blogs

Posted in Human Rights news by Sarah on November 24, 2009

Though not dedicated to human rights per se, the Global Voices site is a good resource for rich digital media presentations of issues often related to human rights.  Global Voices consists of a community of more than 200 volunteer bloggers from around the world who work to translate international blogs in 15 languages; an important goal is to increase the circulation of citizen journalism from areas of the world where individual and dissenting voices are repressed.  As stated on the “about” page concerning the organization’s goals:

At a time when international English-language media ignores many things that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, Global Voices aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media.

We wish to:

  • Call attention to the most interesting conversations and perspectives emerging from citizens’ media around the world by linking to text, photos, podcasts, video and other forms of grassroots citizens’ media.
  • Facilitate the emergence of new citizens’ voices through training, online tutorials, and publicizing the ways in which open-source and free tools can be used safely by people around the world to express themselves.
  • Advocate for freedom of expression around the world and protect the rights of citizen journalists to report on events and opinions without fear of censorship or persecution.

These goals call to mind the importance of documentation in human rights work in terms article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees  both the freedom of expression and the right to information:

Article 19.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The Lede: How Social Media Can Inform Reporting

Posted in Human Rights news by Sarah on October 20, 2009
Image courtesy of /

Image courtesy of /

One of the important trends emerging in human rights work is the potential of social media and Web 2.0 to both inform the world of human rights issues and to create and disseminate first-hand accounts of events, abuses, political movements, and the like.  The New York Times runs a news blog, called The Lede, that illustrates how a variety of social media sources can be fact-checked and pulled into running coverage of breaking news and events.  Not all of their coverage concerns human rights material, but they have been regularly covering events in Iran since the contested presidential elections in June and the material they’ve pulled together is accessible through their archived articles.  Social media that get included in coverage include YouTube videos, photos from a variety of photo-sharing platforms, Twitter tweets, blogs, alternative press sites, and the like.

Breaking Tweets: Twitter Tweets Informing Human Rights News

Posted in Human Rights news, Twitter by Sarah on September 10, 2009
"A little bird told me" A weekly op-ed column at Breaking Tweets.  Image courtesy of

"A little bird told me." Image courtesy of

Here’s a fun site that illustrates how twitter tweets can make informative news pieces related to human rights.  Breaking Tweets, in its own words produces “world news, Twitter-style” by creating journalistic news articles based on first-person information posted on Twitter.  Tweets are pulled together into coherent stories; these stories, along with links to the tweets that inform them, are archived at the website.  Many of the news items produced by Breaking Tweets focus on issues directly related to human rights, social justice, or environmental justice.  The site also allows you to view stories by region, grouping them by major geographic areas: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, Mideast, and Oceania.