WITNESS’ Executive Director Reflects on Operating Outside of Crisis-Mode

By Yvette Alberdingk Thijm

As the executive director of a human rights organization and a member of a global community of activists, you have to regularly ask yourself an existential question: why do we exist? At WITNESS, our raison d’être is our belief that when human rights defenders can use video and technology safely, ethically and effectively, more human rights change will happen.  We believe that there are millions of us who could be defenders as we now can use the technology at our fingertips to create a just world: together, our stories, our truths, can create accountability for human rights crimes and mobilize a just society. This is very personal to me because it is why I get out of bed in the morning. But on a practical level, that existential question should underpin, on a daily basis, everything we do in the struggle for human rights.

This is why last December we brought our entire staff- from Malaysia, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, The Netherlands, and Senegal- to join their U.S.-based colleagues in Brooklyn, NY for our Global Team retreat. And the purpose of our existence was the question that simmered –brightly!- right below the surface as we took a critical look at the state of human rights in the world, questioned our priorities, took in feedback, analyzed our successes, anticipated our future challenges, and evaluated our partnerships and our methodologies.

In the fight for human rights, there are no guarantees of success, but in our 25 years in this fight, we have honed and fire-proofed our approach. In reviewing this past year, we celebrated successes with our partners and identified where we could do better.

We’re proud of the progress we’ve made as collaborators in the growing networks of resistance around the world, building capacity with activists to use video and technology effectively to defend their rights.  We (both WITNESS and our partners) saw stronger ‘ecosystems’ of activism emerge in a tumultuous human rights landscape. For example, an indigenous community in southern Mexico used video documentation and technologies that helped them win an important victory against abusive extractive industries with illegal mining permits.

We also saw how our ‘long bets’ worked: carefully planned, strategic steps against seemingly insurmountable systemic injustices and crimes have born fruit and created real cracks in the walls of impunity vulnerable communities endured this year. For example a groundbreaking investigation into police misconduct and extrajudicial killings in Brazil.

We noted the growing reach and use of our tailored, timely guidance, tools,  and resources, enabling communities to speak out more safely, document human rights crimes in ways that can be verified and trusted, and use video as a strategic tool to push for changes and accountability. For example, across the Asia Pacific region, acts of discrimination that target indigenous peoples and minority populations are on the rise. Based on input from partners, we produced a video with tips for filming acts of hate which was viewed more than 35,000 times via our Asia Facebook page.

Our strategies are anchored in deep collaborations, coupled with the strength and resourcefulness to respond to expected and unexpected challenges. These were the seeds for progress and impact that were planted along the way.

We also looked, critically and with feedback loops from our partners, at where we (as WITNESS or collectively) could have done better, worked smarter, could have been more focused or strategic.

One of our observations is that the phrase ‘tireless activist’ is a misnomer. We and our partner communities get tired, suffer setbacks, and face new challenges that were in no one’s plans – all the time. The mistake we make, over and over, is that, as human rights activists, in the face of mounting crises and phenomenal enemies, we don’t stop often enough to assess, take a breath, and adapt.  

Last year, in particular, the human rights movement was under constant attack. More defenders were killed in 2017 than any year before. Populism, repression, ethnic cleansing, blatant disregard for rule of law, were only some of the successive challenges we encountered. This work comes at a high cost to activists and brave communities who resist. We are in a crisis, but to be as effective as possible, we need to operate outside of crisis-mode.

The world is never going to be predictable, but we’ve built the capability to stop and assess into our plan for the coming year. Because, for example, when the WITNESS team paused, briefly, to discuss our learnings, something wonderful happened during our retreat: we realized how similar the needs on the ground were in one region to others and how we could adapt and share solutions hatched in one place to other places where communities faced similar challenges. For example, our work with partners in Syria dealing with large volumes of human rights documentation that they aim to turn into concrete impact informed updated guidance we’ve shared on crucial cataloging and archiving strategies with activists in Brazil, the United States and beyond.

As millions of people turn to their mobile phones and social media to share their stories of abuse, sometimes putting themselves at great harm, we see repeat patterns of the challenges they face. Building on what we are learning with our partners, we are devising ever-smarter ways to get solutions, tools, and guidance, urgently into the hands of the many, many communities around the world who are facing similar roadblocks to justice. And we’re taking their needs to the tech giants to advocate for system-wide solutions that can turn millions into safer and effective defenders.

To do this, we need to pace ourselves, be radical listeners to our partners and the landscape, and take the time to understand what we are seeing and learning. Then, we can act nimbly, practically, and effectively – to address the challenges and risks defenders face in creating impact.  For example, with more people telling their stories on video, which can be accessed by perpetrators of the abuse, we’re pushing for functionalities that protect people’s identities.  And we’re helping to remove the barriers that activists face such as ensuring their content can be preserved, trusted and found in an environment rife with misinformation.  

And when we come together in shared, networked advocacy efforts, and spend the time to compare and coordinate our efforts, like the groups we work with on exposing and addressing violations committed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in the United States, powerful alliances are built and our chances of success increase.

To do our work well, we must pause to listen, learn and adapt. That is, admittedly, hard to do in a world that requires immediate responses to violations of rights, a world where hatred and violence can move and spread quickly and easily and do more harm than ever.

In 2018, WITNESS is committed to partnering with marginalized and vulnerable communities, and building capacity for people to use video and technology to put an end to injustice.  And from time to time, this year, no matter how deep the crisis or how urgent the need, we will take a moment to listen, to learn and to ensure that our efforts and those of our partners will be more impactful than ever.



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