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May 21, 2009

Ordinary people and their video cameras are helping to confront human rights abuses around the world.

By David A. Ross

A mother in Zimbabwe stares into a video camera. “I am a woman, just like your wife,” she says, unflinching.
“How would you feel if she was raped? What would you have done?
Why did you let it happen to me?”
Her name is Memory, which proves there is poetry even in misery. If not for that video camera, Memory’s story would have been lost to history, along with that of untold other nameless and voiceless victims of the last election in Zimbabwe.
Among the barbarisms of President Robert Mugabe’s party was to dispatch young thugs to rape and beat women whose husbands and boyfriends were suspected of voting for the opposition. Memory’s husband, the father of their child, was one of those on the wrong side.
The camera that committed Memory to tape was put in place by an organization called Witness. Prompted to action by the video of Rodney King’s vicious beating by L.A. police, rocker Peter Gabriel started the organization in 1992. In the years since then, Witness and its online archive, The Hub, have become a key source and clearinghouse for videotaped evidence of human rights abuses across the globe.
Witness provides a growing network of local advocacy groups not only with small, unobtrusive video cameras, but also with training in how to tell their stories. The organization sees its mission as not simply recording abuse, but also putting that documentation to work as a force for social justice. “At the core of our work,” says program director Sam Gregory, “is a training and a methodology and an approach to thinking about how non-professionals—human rights activists, concerned citizens—can use video to create change.”
Memory’s video is a case in point. It will be used as part of a lobbying campaign with the new government of Zimbabwe to implement legal protocols for the protection of the rights of women.

In Focus

“The focus of Witness,” says Gregory, “is trying to think through how you empower people who are closest to what happens, who are right there when it happens. How do we give you the tools to do that in a way that will be compelling, truthful and effective?”
There are as many answers to that question as there are human rights hot spots in the world. Witness has undertaken more than 200 projects in its 17 years, and usually has projects going with more than a dozen local partners at once.
Gillian Caldwell, the previous executive director, began her work with Witness in Russia with an environmental watchdog group called the Global Survival Network (GSN). An undercover GSN investigation into the illegal export of tiger furs from Russia crossed the path of another huge underground industry: the trafficking of women into forced prostitution. Caldwell, then a young D.C. lawyer with a history of human rights activism, was asked to look into it.
For two years, she served at great risk as an undercover investigator as well as producer-director of a documentary titled Bought and Sold. Produced with hidden micro-cameras, Caldwell’s documentary detailed an elaborate conspiracy between the Russian mob and a network of brothels around the world. The results were dramatic, including the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and a U.N. protocol against human trafficking. Since then, Witness has developed study guides so that the documentary can be used to generate discussions in schools, community organizations and law enforcement agencies.
“We work with groups when we train them to help them identify what they want to achieve,” says Gregory. “Who is the audience that can make a difference in doing that? We worked with a group that’s using video in the first ever case before the Pan African Human Rights body, the African commission on human and people’s rights. And so there it’s only about trying to convince seven judges. But in other cases, clearly, it’s not just seven people in a room, it’s…people in communities in eastern Congo who don’t want their children to become part of the militias.”
In that cause, Witness’s program coordinator for Africa and the Middle East, Bukeni Tete Waruzi, has been video blogging almost daily from the first trial at the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. There, former militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is charged with drafting hundreds of young children and training them for brutality in the Congo’s civil war. Working for another of Witness’s partners, Waruzi made a documentary titled A Duty to Protect, whose coverage of the Congo’s children’s brigades helped bring Lubanga to justice.
“Every time I see this video,” says Radihika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the UN secretary general on children and armed conflict, “I feel moved and called to do something.” Video of Lubanga’s training camp has been some of the most powerful testimony against him so far.
Witness has also been working for seven years with Burma Issues, an Asian grassroots human rights organization. Together, they have produced ten documentaries that expose human rights abuses by the military government in Rangoon. These low-fi video works have helped to prevent the plight of the Burmese people and the fate of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from disappearing behind the Myanmar government’s curtain of censorship. Some of their footage led to a four-fold increase in UK government aid for Burmese internally displaced persons—hundreds of thousands of defenseless people caught up in Burma’s political strife. Some of them have been turned into prostitutes for the military, others human land-mine detectors.

Witness in America

Evidence that the U.S. has its own human rights issues is as close as yesterday’s headlines. Video of police brutality last week led to the firing of five officers in Birmingham, Ala. President Obama’s decision not to release two thousand photos documenting the abuse of Iraqi detainees brings the questions raised by Witness and its partners very close to home.
Witness’s 2006 documentary Outlawed: Extraordinary Rendition, Torture and Disappearances in the “War on Terror” tells the story of men who survived rendition, detention and torture at the hands of American and allied interrogators. They are not strangers to the debate, and their position is not doctrinaire.
“I think the issue of the torture photos is an incredibly complex one,” says Gregory. “It is actually not like most images of human rights abuse that you see because it is such a visceral set of images; it is so tied in to an issue that almost everyone in the globe is connected with via daily media contact.”
In other words, the horror of Abu Ghraib is well known, thanks to the images already made public. The debate over the pictures—and Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogation techniques”—are more than sufficient to ensure that the issue of detainee rights stays on the front page and on the national agenda.
For Witness, the issue boils down to “one overriding principle,” as Gregory puts it—“that we shouldn’t let the control over images and stories of human rights violations be held by governments or by the perpetrators of abuse.”
That issue becomes more pressing as programs like Witness proliferate, prompting a corresponding rise in repression by governments determined to keep their secrets. “As we and the world around us become more media savvy and have more tools in our hands and use the Web more,” says Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, Witness’s current executive director, “repressive governments are learning as well. The good news is that there will always be more of us.”  


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