Research on human rights can be as varied as compiling a list of human rights violations in a selected country to carry out fieldwork for an investigative media piece. Your research might involve different methodologies, ranging from conducting 1-to-1 interviews with the people affected by human rights abuses to attending a lecture by experts in the field. Whatever your approach, there are certain rules that can help you conduct research both effectively and ethically and produce results that are worth publishing.
Familiarise yourself with the available literature
Getting to know the existing literature on the subject will not only help you to analyse the topic in depth but also to identify the gaps in the research. This will allow you to make your research unique. Whatever the field you are writing in, remember that adopting an interdisciplinary perspective can enhance your analysis, hence, it is important to have an overview of the literature on the topic written in different fields. You might also want to skim research with the same design, regardless of the subject, to get tips on the methodology used and any challenges encountered.
Plan, plan, plan!
Don’t underestimate the importance of this part of the research because planning is probably one of the most important steps in the whole research process! At this stage, you will need to think about your research questions, hypotheses, and methodology, including ethical and other practical considerations. You should decide how many testimonies you will collect and how you will find your interviewees. If you have a specific deadline for the project, you should also consider how long each activity will take; e.g. obtaining a statement from a government official might take weeks, but you can use this time to progress on your readings or conduct other interviews.
Get different sources and from different perspectives
Quoting the latest Amnesty International reports or statistics won’t be enough for a balanced paper. Neither is building your research exclusively around first-hand accounts of victims of abuses. Ensuring that your sources are varied will create solid basis for a well-informed research paper. Having said this, remember that since your paper is most likely aimed at revealing the patterns of human rights violations, it will undoubtedly paint a negative picture of government practices. This does not mean you lack objectivity, but simply that your paper has a specific focus.
Build rapport and trust
Testimonies have been a major part of human rights research since organisations like Amnesty International have introduced them to their work. To get honest and thorough witness accounts, it is essential to firstly build trustworthy and professional relationships with the victims. This might mean simply proving your credentials and commitment to confidentiality, but usually also involves attentiveness, sensitivity, and patience. You cannot expect people to open up on very personal and sensitive issues to a complete stranger, so if necessary, do tell them about your experiences first: they might be more inclined to speak with you.
Ask the right questions
Asking yes or no questions might provide you with a hint of the direction to follow in your research but will definitely not offer the quality of information you need. Ensure that your questions are open-ended to allow the respondents to answer in any way they wish. In addition, make sure you avoid leading questions that already suggest an answer or embed any bias. Even if it’s not your first time conducting research, having a colleague or a supervisor read your questions can uncover small flaws that might have gone unnoticed. This is valid both for fieldwork research and for desk-based research – you want your questions to be targeted to the right audience and subject area, so make sure you review these before and after any interviews.
Quality over quantity
Case studies can be much more appreciated than numbers by NGOs and funders as they provide a more detailed picture of the impact that human rights violations and abuses have on individuals and communities. It is much more powerful to hear a first-hand witness account than being presented a chart with numbers of the latest statistics. Yet, even if you are working with numbers, choosing the right ones to present is also a matter of quality and will determine the engagement of your audience.
Ethics and safety first
The first ethical principle of any type of social research is not to cause any harm. Consider wisely the context your interviewees are living in and do not put them at further risk of abuse. Do not make promises you cannot maintain, do not state the false and be clear about what your research is about. Conducting your research according to these ethical principles will add credibility to your report and will help you build trust with both your clients and sponsors.
Don’t be afraid of talking politics
Different organisations have different stands on how they approach politics. They might tell you to be ‘neutral’, but the truth is that human rights work is inherently political and should take the stand of the victims it is trying to protect. Since this work is about identifying human rights violations that are often conducted by governments and corporations, you might have to face government officials and big corporations. Nevertheless, don’t let yourself be intimidated by their big names: this is what justice is all about.
Cross-examine the results
Sometimes data can be misleading. If you’re working with numbers, check that you have enough supporting evidence to explain the reasons, causes or wider impact of the phenomenon you’re examining. Similarly, if you’re focusing on a case study, it is not safe to generalise the results unless you have demonstrable proof that this is the case. Cross-examining the results will ensure that your conclusions are valid and reliable.
Even if your report is not aimed at an academic journal, referencing the materials you use is common professional practice. This does not include only published literature, but also quotes from interviews or conversations you hold during your research. Don’t forget to uphold confidentiality by hiding any personal details and changing the names of vulnerable individuals.