A New Era of Human Rights Advocacy

In our globalized world – where a single trip to the gas pump or supermarket is also an ethical decision which reveals our concern (or lack thereof) for the welfare of individuals and environments in other countries – it is readily apparent why we would need a global moral code to help guide our actions and their far-reaching repercussions. In 1948 representatives from member countries of the United Nations General Assembly gathered in Paris to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which aims to take into consideration the differences in culture and values that distinguish us while emphasizing those fundamental rights that apply to all human beings regardless of gender, nationality, race, or religion.

Of course, it is not without its critics, but in the sixty brief years since its drafting, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the most translated document in the world, has formed the basis of international law, and has given rise to a multi-billion dollar industry of organizations, institutions, and academic departments that observe and analyze the status of human rights around the world, and advocate on behalf of those whose fundamental human rights have been violated. One of these institutions is the University of California at Berkeley's Human Rights Center, which earlier this month convened a conference to bring together leading technologists and human rights advocates in order to “share best practices and develop new strategies for incorporating technology to address human rights abuses.” In addition to the main event in Berkeley, California, there was also a parallel event with live presenters in New York City, and remote viewing hubs where participants contributed via chat and Twitter from Colombia and Egypt.

Rising Voices was well represented at the conference. I spoke in Berkeley about how human rights organizations can use citizen media tools to empower communities affected by human rights abuses to tell their own stories, rather than advocating on behalf of those communities as has traditionally been the model of most advocacy organizations. In New York City Lova Rakotomalala of the Foko Madagascar project explained how Malagasy bloggers used new media tools to report on the human rights violations which took place during the recent presidential coup, as well as to give context to the heated conflict for outside observers who might not know much about Madagascar other than what they have seen in Disney movies. In the small community library of San Javier La Loma, Colombia the participants of HiperBarrio – a citizen media project that just won a Prix Award for best digital community – gathered to view the live stream of the Berkeley conference and continue the discussion about human rights with local students.

Sharing his thoughts about the New York City Human Rights barcamp with the rest of the Foko community, Lova Rakotomalala writes:

As you know, Foko's primary mission is to document the everyday lives of Malagasy citizens and local agents of environmental change, not record potential human rights violations by their government. Yet, the ongoing crisis decided otherwise for the time being. The hub was a great opportunity to meet and learn first hand from Human Rights activists present at the event.

The presentation went over the background of the crisis, the known human rights violations that were documented since January 09, the use of new media by tools by the dynamic new media users’ community in Madagascar (both related and non-related to Foko) and the obstacles for more extensive reporting of current events. We also posit that among all the past and current human rights violations in Madagascar (military repression, limited freedom of speech, arrest etc..) the most glaring offense in our opinion is the 400,000 people (mostly children) currently at risk of hunger in the South because the political deadlock prevents an effective response.

The slides from Lova's presentation are available on Slideshare:

On the outskirts of Medellín the citizen media project HiperBarrio invited students from the neighboring school to sit and watch the live transmission.

hiperbarrio human rights

San Javier La Loma librarian and HiperBarrio project coordinator Gabriel Vanegas describing the purpose of the conference to students from the community's school.

Catalina Restrepo later described the events of the day on the project's group blog:

At one in the afternoon, the students from the “Educational Institution Loma Hermosa” arrived at the library. The objective was to watch the conference “The Soul of the New Machine”, but the language barrier made it difficult to keep their attention.

Because of this, Gabriel Jaime decided to speak to them a little about human rights, the French Revolution, and about our project.

The different groups of students arrived at intervals. Some were more attentive than others, but they were all witnesses to an event that discussed topics very close to the hard realities that our community lived and continues to live. Here we still haven't seen any process of justice, truth and reconciliation. The victims cry to their relatives in silence and some of the perpetrators pass through the streets of the neighborhood as if nothing happened.

During the last visit of students Professor Álvaro directly interpreted what the speakers of the conference were discussing, such as the importance of databases in gathering information about crimes and massacres in countries like Peru, Guatemala, and Chat, and the enormous challenges facing experts who must organize, protect, and encrypt the data in case the hard drives are stolen.

Despite all the language-related difficulties, the technical language of the experts, and the lack of seating in our small but precious library, the simple fact that a community like our own can take part in a conference of experts discussing the topic of human rights from thousands of kilometers away is a milestone without precedent.

HiperBarrio is, in fact, a perfect example of the new era of human rights advocacy. Before Professor Álvaro Ramírez and Gabriel Vanegas decided to teach young library users from the community how to blog and upload short video documentaries to YouTube, the only online references to San Javier La Loma all came from foreign activist-journalists and human rights organizations eager to portray the violence that took place in the region throughout the 90's, and up to 2003. In his own words, Gabriel Vanegas wanted to rescue the community's history, culture, and idiosyncrasies so that its online representation was more accurate of its offline reality. That is not to say that the project's bloggers haven't covered the violence that affected, and continues to affect, all of their lives; Deneiber Xady has written compellingly about growing up in a near warzone. However, the bloggers of HiperBarrio are also happy to point out all the positive aspects of San Javier La Loma that are often overlooked by outsiders and residents alike.

Some human rights organizations have already realized that they can better serve a community by training its residents how to tell their own stories online, rather than speaking on their behalf. The Jesuit Refugee Service in collaboration with Ancla 2, for example, has trained a group of youth who have been affected by violence along the Venezuela-Colombia border how to publish photos and stories to a group blog. Similarly, Panos London worked with the African HIV Policy Network last autumn to teach HIV-positive immigrants living in London how to produce their own videos. Open Society Institute‘s support of Rising Voices health-related grantees have enabled bloggers like Pavel Kutsev to describe first-hand what life is like in a community that most of us choose to ignore, such as injection drug users.

Still, the majority of multi-million dollar human rights organizations spend their time and money gathering statistics and publishing reports without ever giving the communities they work with a chance to speak for themselves. There is a long road ahead, but we seem to be on the right path.


  • In working class neighborhoods of Medellin Human Rights issues are not much a matter of discussion, because the perpetrators of past crimes can walk up and down the streets intimidating their neighbor victms into silence.
    Some can be done in these communities with a good hand of professional qualified lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. But it is not an easy task to initiate the process of true and reconciliation.
    Let us hope that we can find the means and the team needed to cure the wounds of old crimes, before the ones that are starting to show up escalate out of proportion. A quiet tension was the state of affairs in Medellin up to the lasts 3 months when new drug lords and deales have began to launch a new war to extend their violent territorial influence and the power to control the population.

  • Its a very useful and inspiring blog you carry out. Many would be influenced by your mission. All the best. Sam

  • Hi David, I’m thinking in this post, I feel very happy, you make me remember the event “The soul of the new machine” and I can confirm all that I’ve said in my last post.

    I invite you to read http://cambiojuvenil.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/debe-ser-ituango-sinonimo-de-violencia/ It talks (too) about human advocacy.

    Now, La Loma (heaven, people, panoramic views…), all the pictures tha I’ve uploaded in flickr and panoramio and geopositioning are in google earth, I’m in the house of my neighbor and I’m looking it with this program, she can look her house and her people in internet.

    I think that everything is achieved through small steps, small details that together produce a significant change in society.

    Have a good day.

  • […] – Rising Voices post on communities using new media as active agents for change Post from Rising Voices on recent conference convened at Berekely’s Human Rights Centre bringing […]

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