Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

How to Investigate Human Rights Violations

The investigation of human rights violations is important for accountability, as it holds perpetrators responsible for their actions and seeks justice for victims. It serves to document evidence, deter future abuses, raise awareness, and advocate for policy and legal reforms. Investigations contribute to supporting victims, upholding international human rights standards, and creating a culture of accountability and respect for human rights. The investigation of human rights violations requires a systematic and thorough approach. Before we dive into it, consider taking a look at the following more comprehensive resources.

Note that in some cases you will not be able to follow the sequence of the steps outlined below. When I took photos and videos of human rights violations during the Egyptian Revolution, there was no time to define the scope or research applicable laws as outlined below. I had to start directly with step 4 which is collecting evidence.

#1 Define the scope

Define the scope of the investigation, including the broad human rights violations, affected individuals or groups, and the geographic and temporal boundaries.

In the first step, identify the alleged human rights violation that forms the basis of the investigation. This involves understanding the specific rights that may have been violated as defined by international human rights law or national laws. For example, the violation could relate to torture, freedom of speech, the right to life, or discrimination, among others. Part of defining the scope, is to narrow down the temporal scope of the violation. It could be a specific date, a time span or a range of dates. You may adjust the time frame as the investigation progresses, when new information is uncovered. The scope of your investigation also includes a geographic dimension. Specify the geographic boundaries of the investigation. This could be a specific location, a broader area, or even multiple areas in different regions or countries.

#2 Research applicable laws and standards

Familiarize yourself with relevant national and international laws, treaties, and human rights standards that apply to the specific violations being investigated.

To ensure the validity of your investigation, researching applicable laws and human rights standards is essential. This process includes reviewing international human rights treaties, regional human rights documents, domestic laws, customary international law and – if the violation occurred during armed conflict – international humanitarian law such as the Geneva Conventions. Remember, while laws and standards provide the framework for determining what constitutes a human rights violation, they do not replace the importance of thorough fact-finding, objective analysis, and sensitive handling of victims and witnesses in any investigation.

#3 Establish a methodology

Develop a clear methodology for the investigation, including data collection methods, interview techniques, and protocols for ensuring the safety and confidentiality of witnesses.

Investigating human rights violations requires a systematic approach to ensure findings are accurate, verifiable, and can withstand scrutiny. The choice of methodology will often be dictated by the context and circumstances. It may include desk research, field research, witness interviews and document/media analysis. Desk research may include media reports, academic articles, reports from human rights organizations, legal documents, and other secondary sources. Interviews, observations, surveys, and collection of physical or digital evidence may be part of field research. Field research should be planned and executed with care to ensure the safety and security of the investigators and those they interact with. Interviews with victims, witnesses, and other relevant individuals are a critical part of many human rights investigations. Interviews should be conducted in a sensitive and respectful manner, in a safe and private environment, and with the informed consent of the interviewee.

#4 Collect evidence

Gather evidence through various sources, including documents, photographs, videos, eyewitness testimonies, expert opinions, and forensic analysis. Ensure proper documentation and chain of custody for all evidence collected.

Collecting evidence during human rights investigations is a sensitive process that must be handled with utmost care and integrity. Different types of evidence may be relevant, including testimonial evidence (such as witness statements), physical evidence, documents, and digital evidence. The quality of evidence is often more important than the quantity. Meticulous record-keeping, preservation of original documents or items, and robust analysis and interpretation are crucial to ensuring that the evidence collected can effectively contribute to achieving justice and accountability. Verify and cross-reference the collected information and evidence to establish its credibility and reliability. Seek multiple sources and perspectives to ensure a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the violations. Consult and engage with relevant stakeholders, including human rights organizations, legal experts, and affected communities. Seek their expertise, input, and collaboration throughout the investigation process.

#5 Analyze and interpret data

Analyze the collected data and evidence to identify patterns, trends, and potential connections. Look for underlying causes, perpetrators, and potential systemic issues contributing to the human rights violations.

Start by compiling all the collected data and organizing it in a manner that facilitates easy retrieval and analysis. This could include creating a database or using specialized software. All data should be handled with care to maintain confidentiality and integrity. Depending on the nature of the investigation, it may be helpful to categorize the data. Categories might include types of human rights violations, geographical locations, time stamps, or perpetrators and victims. Once you’ve understood the factual patterns, you must analyze the data within the framework of applicable human rights laws and standards. This involves assessing whether the facts amount to a violation of specific rights.

#6 Document findings

Prepare a detailed and well-documented report of the investigation findings, including the methodology used, the evidence collected, and the analysis conducted. Present the findings in a clear, objective, and compelling manner. 

A well-structured and comprehensive report enhances the transparency, credibility, and impact of the investigation. Describe in detail the methodology used in the investigation. This should include the methods of data collection and analysis, any challenges faced, and how these were overcome. Be transparent about any limitations of the methodology. Explain the legal framework used in the investigation. This should include the international, regional, and national laws and standards relevant to the alleged violations. Present your findings in a clear and structured manner. This could be organized by type of violation, location, perpetrator, victim group, or any other relevant categorization. For each finding, describe the evidence and how you arrived at your conclusion. Use direct quotes, case studies, or specific examples where appropriate.

#7 Advocate for justice and accountability

Utilize the investigation findings to advocate for justice, accountability, and remedial actions. Share the report with relevant authorities, human rights organizations, media outlets, and other stakeholders to raise awareness and support efforts to address the violations.

Once you’ve conducted a thorough human rights violation investigation and documented your findings, advocating for justice and accountability is the next important step. This process can take many forms depending on the context, the nature of the violations, and the available resources. You may want to make the investigation report public and ensure it reaches key stakeholders. This could include government officials, human rights organizations, the media, and the general public. Using various platforms (online, print media, public forums) can increase the reach and impact of the report. You may also want to advocate for policy changes to prevent future violations. This could involve changes to laws, regulations, or practices that contributed to the violations. Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to engage with international bodies like the United Nations or regional human rights bodies. This could involve submitting reports, participating in reviews, or lobbying for resolutions or other actions. Raising public awareness and understanding of the violations can generate public pressure for accountability and change. This could involve public forums, educational programs, social media campaigns, or other awareness-raising activities.

About the author

Robert Fellner

Robert is founder of Human Rights Careers (HRC). A platform with the aim to support human rights students, alumni, graduates and professionals in pursuing and developing their career in human rights. Prior to launching HRC, Robert worked as Global Human Rights EdTech Manager at Amnesty International in London and as consultant for international human rights organizations globally. During 2011 and 2012, Robert worked as lecturer at Ain Shams university in Egypt. Robert has a masters in literature and human rights.