A biased history of HURIDOCS

A personal reflection about HURIDOCS's history on the occasion of the 20th anniversary.

By Hans Thoolen on

As often, one’s fondest memories relate to events that are further back in the past. Perhaps because the frustrations at the time have faded into insignificance compared to the friendships made and successes obtained.

It was in May 1979 (I think) that Ford Foundation called a meeting in a chateau near Paris. There the representatives of some key human rights organisations and others came together to see whether it would be possible to issue a kind of annual State of the World Human Rights Report that would have the agreement and, thus the authority, of the global human rights movement.

Most of the NGOs present (I was there for the International Commission of Jurists) did not think that this was possible, but we did agree that there was a need to pursue the harmonisation of information and documentation practices among us, in particular as the information technology revolution had started (some of us even went as far as suggesting that computers might be useful!). As far as I am concerned that was the birth, perhaps better, conception of HURIDOCS .

At this meeting also, I met for the first time Martin Ennals, the outgoing Secretary General of Amnesty International, and was immediately taken by his personality and vision. Now, 20 years later, I take great pride in being the Chairman of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

During the next 3 years, a small group of 5 or 6 persons met as a follow-up committee and organised rounds of consultation, often in the margin of other meetings. A young, huge and brilliant Norwegian, Bjorn Stormorken, joined as our in-house computer wiz kid. In 1982 (when I was between two assignments and hired as a consultant), we organised the first big meeting of our own on the theme of information and documentation for human rights in Latin America; this was in Quito, Ecuador (important to note that the first real HURIDOCS conference was not in a Western Country!). A few weeks later we had the first Assembly, in Strasbourg. At these two meetings the rough outline of HURIDOCS as a network-type of organisation was agreed by some two hundred people. Some of the names still have a ring today: Luis Perez Aguirre of SERPAJ (who died last year of a silly bicycle incident), Katarina Tomasevski, Laurie Wiseberg, Jonathan Kuttab, Asbjorn Eide, Frederieke Knabe, Abdurrachman Youssoufi (now Prime Minister of Morocco), Pepe Diokno, Adrian Nastase (now Prime Minister of Romania), and José Antonio Vieira Gallo (now back in Chile as a Senator). A constitution was somehow drafted in the middle of the night.

Fearing to set up a new big organisation, which would compete for funds, it was agreed that I, as Secretary on the Executive Board of HURIDOCS, would run a small and separate secretariat at the newly created Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) in Utrecht. The size of the HURIDOCS secretariat was, at its height, one young and underpaid staff member (remember Annie McMorris?). Bert Verstappen (an historian starting as a conscientious objector in SIM and helping out with HURIDOCS matters) moved in 1986 to Oslo for the Sri Lanka database project and joined the secretariat of HURIDOCS when it later also came to Oslo. HURIDOCS never owned much solid and valuable furniture but Bert comes closest.

The governing structure agreed in Strasbourg was rather democratic and very representative of all regions and political currents, but it was also utterly unwieldy and could hardly meet due to costs of flying in the Board members. Moreover, the Board included persons who wanted HURIDOCS to blossom, but also those who wanted it stunted. This stalemate lasted until the very end of the second Assembly in Rome in 1986, where Martin Ennals spotted Kumar Rupesinghe, a Sri Lankan go-getter working at PRIO, and thought he would be the right person to drag HURIDOCS forward. Over breakfast, we approached Kumar who agreed to be the Chairman of an emergency interim body, on the condition that it would be small and handpicked: Kumar, Bjorn (soon replaced by Michael Protz-Schwartz) and myself; Martin Ennals stayed on as ‘founding president’. As this took place well before the fall of the Berlin wall, the term politburo had not yet been vacated; so, we had to settle for “Continuation Committee”, the dreaded CC.

And, indeed, the smaller committee worked much better . Strategic directions were agreed, donor consortia formed, etc. A still small but more operational secretariat – now based in Oslo – supported the ambitious plans with regard to the development of standard formats, agreed terminology, data exchange, training courses, etc. There were regular meetings of the CC as well as of a variety of Task Forces, some functioning very well at regional level. In many respects, I consider this the ‘most productive’ period of HURIDOCS. Through the field activities, we picked up committed and knowledgeable ‘professionals’ (e.g. Aida-Maria Noval, Kofi Kumado, Manny Guzman, James Lawson and Judith Dueck) who all joined the governing structures of HURIDOCS at one time or another. Our administrator at the time, Vangelis Kastrinakis, discovered a beautiful and inexpensive setting for the 3rd Assembly in his native Crete, which took place at the OAC in 1992. Martin Ennals would not be present; he died in October 1991.

Crete 1992: a great meeting but also a missed opportunity. With over 180 participants – over half from outside the developed world – it was easily the largest gathering HURIDOCS had put together. It was certainly the most lively and noisy meeting (the latter also because there were dynamite explosions going on just next to meeting room). On this occasion I was allowed to submit a fairly elaborate study on the possible establishment of a `Human Rights On-Line’ service. The underlying notion was that if the key producers of reliable human rights information (NGOs and UN) would together constitute a series of accumulated databases, users would be able to find quickly quality information in one site without having to go to a variety of smaller and incomplete collections (and then having to weed out considerable overlap and guessing which text is the most authentic). “Human Rights On-line” would provide instant access to the full text of international documents, to literature references and directories, etc, all of which, for once, could be kept up-to-date because the documentation staff in the different centres would be able to divide the work. In spite of the fact that there was a concrete proposal to create a ‘producers’ collective’, composed of NGO representatives, to govern the new service, the fragmented human rights organizations could at that time not overcome the fear of losing their own label (‘small is beautiful’). On one of the few occasions that there was actually a vote in the HURIDOCS network, there appeared to be simply not enough support to let HURIDOCS move ahead in that area. A related proposal to establish an international training centre for human rights information work (in Paris) did get enough support but was weakened by the absence of an unambiguous mandate for HURIDOCS to provide on-line access to human rights information. Moreover, the Paris-based foundation later turned out to have financial problems of its own.

Since 1992, predictably, trends in information technology and human rights activity alike have accelerated. Larger quantities of data than ever before have become available to the public in electronic form, mostly through an already now bewildering number of websites. Efforts have been made to make these electronic publications more user-friendly, but the improved presentation of these individual efforts cannot make up for the deficiencies of the total picture, which remains one of overlap and gaps. Overlap is easily demonstrated by any search on the internet and counting how often, e.g., the full text of the Universal Declaration appears or the preponderance of references to already widely available reports such as those by AI, HRW and the UN. Gaps are by their nature less easily demonstrated. In other words, today’s ‘cottage industry’ of electronic publications still reflects same the fragmented character of the human rights movement that prevented the adoption of strategic alliance in Crete .

The solution proposed in the Human Rights On-line study would have to be fully reworked in the light of technological and organizational developments that occurred since then, but the underlying arguments are still valid (nowadays one would probably call it a ‘portal’, while images and videos would rank higher than in 1992). HURIDOCS’ current project to produce a specialised human-rights search engine could also be very useful, as the most common ones fail to pick up, let alone prioritise, the serious human rights sources available on the internet .

The Crete Assembly was also important for me personally in that I resigned, as planned, from the CC, making space for others to be “the current” in the network and creating space for myself to do other things in my newly-found spare time. I did attend the Tunis Assembly in 1998, resigned from the Advisory Council (which unfortunately is not really a functioning body) but continue stay in touch with the Secretariat in Geneva and the individual human rights activists that I got to know thanks to the worldwide range of HURIDOCS.

Forgotten by many is that it was HURIDOCS’ International Advisory Council, which at its meeting in Crete in 1992 voted into existence the first Board of the Martin Ennals Foundation. Being currently based at the OAC, the site of the Crete conference, and working mostly on the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, I really start to appreciate historical perspective better.

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