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Field Notes: An exploration of the methodology of human rights monitors

In conjunction with Human Rights Watch UK

Speakers: Souleymane Guengueng; Meena Seshu; Sanar Yurdatapan
Chair: Professor Conor Gearty, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
October 2003


In this third 'Field notes' event, a panel of frontline human rights defenders will discuss the principles of monitoring human rights violations in their countries: their different methods of collecting and evaluating information and the ways in which they develop a strategic advocacy campaign both locally and at an international level.

Souleymane Guengueng is the founder and vice president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP) and a main force behind the case against former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. Mr Guengueng almost died during two years of mistreatment in Habré's prisons, and he watched hundreds of people succumb to malaria, starvation, and torture. When Habré fell, Mr Guenguen, a modest but fearless civil servant, helped found the AVCRP, which gathered files on 792 victims to bring Habré to justice and win compensation for his victims. When it became clear that the successor government in Chad would not pursue justice for the victims. Mr Guengueng hid the files underneath his mud-brick home, where they stayed for eight years until he handed them to a Human Rights Watch researcher. These files formed the core of the case against Habré, who was arrested in exile in Senegal in 2000 and charged with crimes against humanity and torture. With Human Rights Watch's support, the victims now seek Habré's extradition to stand trial in Belgium. When a Belgian judge visited Chad recently, Mr Guengeueng said, "Everyone thought I was crazy, but now they can see justice in on the march."

Meena Seshu is one of India's most compelling and creative human rights and AIDS activists. She speaks consistently about the HIV/AIDS crisis and a human rights issue. Ms Seshu is the general secretary of SANGRAM, an organization that works to stem the epidemic in Maharashtra state, which has one of the highest infection rates in India. SANGRAM disseminates basic information about HIV and distributes 350,000 condoms per month, which translates into significant HIV prevention. One of the group's most successful projects is to build the capacity of sex workers to organize in collectives, negotiate condom use with their clients, and assert and defend their rights. Human Rights Watch worked with SANGRAM earlier this year and documented how the Indian police and local thugs obstructed SANGRAM's work through harassment and abuse of its outreach workers. In so doing, the police prevented the dissemination of essential information and services and perpetuated the social stigmatization of vulnerable populations. Ms Seshu, who has endured personal attacks by local authorities, has not let that stop her from working on behalf of some of India's most marginalized people.

Sanar Yurdatapan bravely and ingeniously mocks Turkey's arbitrary and excessive attempts to restrict freedom of expression. In Turkey, it is dangerous to speak out about some of the most contested topics in modern life: the role of Islam, the plight of the Kurdish ethnic minority, and the power of the military. Those who express unpopular opinions about these issues risk imprisonment, fines, and the banning of their publications. Defying this punishment, Mr Yurdatapan has republished banned materials, defended the articulation of Islamist thought, investigated human rights massacres against the Kurdish minority, and, at times, publicly declared the incompetence and corruption of Turkish and other authorities. He has worked with Human Rights Watch to focus public attention on the unjust imprisonment of Kurdish officials and to defend indicted publishers, writers and politicians. At a moment when it is difficult to oppose official policies in Turkey, particularly those designed to suppress dissent, Mr Yurdatapan, who has been imprisoned three times and endlessly harassed, unabashedly and creatively defends a principle - the right to disagree vocally and protest peacefully - which is a touchstone of the human rights movement.