Research is one of my favourite activities. I enjoy digging into human rights situations, identifying possible interventions for improvement, and measuring the effects these interventions, expected or unexpected, might have.
Human rights is always about people, about their dignity and perspectives for developing their capabilities. There is a lot of theory in the international system of human rights, but the main focus should, in my opinion, always be the ways that people can enjoy their rights.
A long time ago, a group of Albanian Kosovar human rights activists asked me, which right was being violated when they were not allowed to bury their dead in the way and with the rituals they had done for centuries. They were convinced there was a right being violated, but which one? We checked the international standards and concluded that it was the right to participate in the cultural life of your own choice. Thus their very basic feeling had found a legal, theoretical argument.
My research can go into different directions, it may be a theoretical effort to develop a model for analysis, or the concrete and current situation of human rights in a country that I know sufficiently well. But I do not believe in a one-week reading, one-week reporting formula. I know where to find the basic data, but I also want to build upon earlier experiences.
Other research - much more participatory - will go into conducting needs assessments for human rights activities. Then the stakeholders are my partners in creating a problem tree or a theory of change.
Here are examples of assignments that included a certain amount of research:
For the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB): the assignment was, based on a set of criteria, to select a limited number of human rights programmes and projects of the Dutch government for a major evaluation of its total human rights interventions - originating from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation in the period 2004 - 2010. The selection of two dozen programmes out of more than 600 had to be based on (among others): contents (what right did they intervene in); geography (what countries were involved); volume (in financial terms); timeline (start, conclusion and length).
We made a selection that covered in a more or less representative manner the priorities, regions, big and small, long and short term, and ongoing and ad hoc types of the interventions. The evaluation for which this selection was made, will be carried out in 2011. I carried out this assignment with a colleague-consultant Margreet de Boer in the period between October 2010 to February 2011.
In 2008, for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gender Unit: the assignment was to develop a reporting scheme and indicators for a sound accountability to the Dutch Parliament of interventions aimed at Violence Against Women in several countries. These programmes were initiated under the umbrella of the "Schokland Agreements", a series of tri-partite cooperation programmes among government, civil society and the private sector. The innovative programmes required a new way of reporting. We took the United Nations objectives of the fight against Violence Against Women as a starting point for developing a three level reporting tool (objectives, chosen priorities and achievements). Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff members adapted the tool into a special reporting module for embassies. This assignment was carried out in cooperation with Margreet de Boer who also developed a similar tool for NGOs (see Rights for Change).
In 2005, I devoted a sabbatical semester to analysing and describing mechanisms of impunity in Indonesia. This made me aware that research is not an objective in itself but a means to contribute to more effective and innovative ways of thinking that can be used in the real world. In 2006, I organized a workshop with Indonesian human rights activists, and asked them for feed back. One of the major outcomes of this workshop was that there is a need for better definitions as to impunity, and especially for the inclusion of violations of social and economic rights for which international prosecution should become possible.
The resulting book (The Scope of Impunity) although by now a bit out of date, was one of my major research projects, and I am very proud that there is an Indonesian translation available to Indonesian activists: "Jangkauan Impunitas di Indonesia", with a foreword by the late Asmara Nababan. (photo © VHRmedia)
When in 2011 I led a workshop for the Swedish Evaluation Agency SADEV, to develop a sound methodology for their overarching human rights evaluation of the work of SIDA, I decided to note down my experiences, and to make further steps for a smart tool to measure human rights realization, based on United Nations' concepts. You can read this article here.