Being an information hub calls for more than just building a database. It means finding out what people need, assembling relevant information, organising it in an intuitive way, publishing it, and inviting feedback from users. It’s a vital role, and one that requires a lot of work (as we at HURIDOCS know!). But what may not be obvious is how serving as an information hub can open important doors to advancing your human rights work. This is one of the key lessons we learned from talking with human rights defenders at the October 2017 NGO Forum in Banjul, The Gambia – read on to learn more!
From 28 to 30 October, Humphrey Sipalla, our Consultant on the African Human Rights System, and I had the pleasure of attending the NGO Forum in Banjul. We were there primarily to introduce human rights defenders to our newest software solution, Uwazi, but the Forum was also a remarkable opportunity for us to learn firsthand about NGOs’ needs, challenges, and creative information solutions. (It was also a welcome chance to reconnect with HURIDOCS friends and partners!). Here’s a brief overview of what we did and learned at this year’s Forum.
About the Forum
The NGO Forum is an opportunity for human rights groups from across Africa to learn from each other and to coordinate efforts in the run-up to the Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In the main event hall this year, participants were able to engage with guest speakers such as Stavros Lambrinidis – the EU Special Representative for Human Rights – and attend panel discussions on topics that ranged from Popularizing Resolution 322 of the ACHPR for advancing African Gender Machinery for Women, Peace and Security & Children Violence and Protection of Children in Armed Conflict to Protection of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) at the national level. Participants also hosted side events at which people could discuss their challenges, experiences, ideas and opportunities related to their human rights work.
Our participation in the Forum
HURIDOCS facilitated the eighth and final panel, on human rights information management. The panelists shared reflections on the importance of information management and discussed some new opportunities on the horizon:
- Sibongile Ndashe, Executive Director of Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA), talked about what can be gained from well-managed information within an organisation. ISLA is planning to use Casebox to manage their legal cases and analyse their impact.
- Professor Frans Viljoen, Director of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, talked about some of the Centre’s initiatives to improve access to human rights case information, such as its database and commentary on jurisprudence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
- Dismas Nkunda, Director of Atrocities Watch, described many of the common information challenges that human rights groups in Africa face: these include verification barriers, security risks, creating information that is clear and understandable, organising internal organisational information, and knowing how to work with and maximise new technology and media.
- Humphrey Sipalla, HURIDOCS Consultant on the African Human Rights System, talked about why the African Case Law Analyser was developed, how it was built, and what the plans are for improving it.
In the lobby, Humphrey and I hosted an information table where participants could stop by for live demos of Uwazi and brainstorm solutions to information management headaches. We talked with defenders from Swaziland, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Nigeria, and everywhere in-between. Many had already brought human rights cases to the African Commission, while others were just starting the process.
Participants’ information challenges and opportunities
The panel and information table were unique opportunities for HURIDOCS to talk with Forum participants about our tools and services, but the greatest benefit for us came through listening and learning. There was one information challenge that we heard described again and again:
Accessing critical human rights information (such as the status of cases before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights).
The problem: When a case is brought before a human rights institution awaiting their decision, receiving the decision as well as the reasoning behind it is absolutely critical to know how to proceed. Unfortunately, there is a range of reasons why this information can be difficult to access. Institutions that possess the information often do not have the human resources, technical capacity, or incentives to organise and share this information in a useful way.
Solutions that were discussed: Organisations like the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria have developed innovative solutions for improving online access to human rights cases: those are the African Case Law Analyser and the database and commentary on jurisprudence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (both sites are built using Uwazi).
Still, these systems continue to rely on the public release of case documents from the institutions themselves. While the NGO community can improve how human rights defenders find, analyse and use information, we also need for institutions to improve their track record on making this information public. One idea shared was for the NGO community to help build the technical capacity of these institutions by providing user-friendly technology, training and support.
In our ongoing dialogue at Banjul, we also learned that taking on the role of information wrangler (such as IHRDA did with the African Case Law Analyser) can deliver added benefits, in terms of improving access to human rights information. IHRDA staff came to be seen by the African Commission as providing an important service for their institution and the broader human rights community. This led to the IHRDA building a stronger relationship with the Commission, gaining easier access to information upon request, and finding a willingness on the part of the Commission to listen to concerns and recommendations that IHRDA shared.
I must admit, when I first saw the list of panel discussion topics for the Forum, I was unsure how HURIDOCS would fit in, since our work is not focused on a specific human rights issue or campaign. But after speaking with defenders working on a range of issues, campaigns, and advocacy goals, it became clear to me that information management is an important part of every human rights campaign, organisation, and institution. It was a timely reminder that HURIDOCS’ role connecting human rights organisations to usable, secure solutions (and vice versa) is as crucial as ever.