Civil society documentation of human rights abuses

Who participated in the research

The civil society documenters we spoke to:

  • for the most part, operated in high-risk environments and with limited resources, including funding, staff capacity and expertise;
  • worked across, and were based in, a wide range of regions, including Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia;
  • had varying degrees of access to and use of digital technologies;
  • conducted documentation with different and often multiple goals in mind, including:
    • advocacy, with intended audiences including civil society, the media, governments,
    • international organisations, transitional justice mechanisms and multilateral bodies.
    • memorialisation, or creating collective memory.
    • As part of or to inform victim/survivor support services, such as psychological or legal aid.
    • investigating and documenting evidence for justice and accountability processes.
    • assessing progress around human rights-related policies.

Documentation workflows & where tech tools fit in

This research focused on tools that support at least one stage of a documentation workflow. Simplified, a ‘typical’ full workflow might look something like the one below.

01. Collect

From primary sources (for example, by recording video or audio testimonies, taking photos, collecting information through notes or standardised forms, crowdsourcing data, etc), and/or from secondary sources (e.g. legal documents, news reports, blog posts, or posts on social media).

02. Organise

Through, for example, a data management system. These types of tools can support documenters to store, organise and manage their collected data in a way that enables them to do things like find what they need, organise what they’ve collected and create linkages between pieces of evidence.

03. Analyse & Visualise

To gain insight into the data through counts and statistics, charts, graphs, and so on. Analysis can help documenters do things like make connections between incidences, identify patterns, establish narratives, map out the most affected groups/contexts, and verify information by cross-checking it from multiple sources.

04. Share

For example, with the general public or with trusted partners, or multilateral bodies or transitional justice mechanisms. Sharing functionalities are included in most tools, and allow documenters to do things like send information through another application or export data into a report.

Key findings


Resources are the biggest factor in determining whether tool adoption will be successful or not

The research showed that although digital tools can be a big help to organisations who need to organise and analyse large amounts of information, they also add complexity, can put strain upon already limited resources and, crucially, often require setting up and maintaining shared methodologies to guide their use.

In most cases, lack of resources was the biggest factor in determining how successfully organisations were able to choose and adopt technology tools to support their workflows.

  • In particular, documenters reported struggling to get funding for software, hardware and storage. This is especially important when it comes to video evidence (e.g. recorded witness testimony), which can result in large files. Making sure the storage is secure can add an extra layer of cost.
  • Inability to buy storage can also affect evidence quality and evidentiary value. Some organisations reported having to convert the original files/recordings into smaller and lighter formats, risking damaging the files and rendering them unusable for the organisation’s own documentation workflows, or destroying their evidentiary value for court procedures and accountability mechanisms.
  • Setting up and maintaining good methodological systems for tool use came up frequently as a crucial part of successfully integrating tools into documentation workflows – but it also came up as something that tends to be vastly underestimated in terms of the time and resources needed, particularly when it comes to bigger projects (for example, setting up databases to manage information).

What documentation organisations need to do to set up and maintain tools successfully

Those we spoke to mentioned needing both staff expertise and financial resources to, at minimum:

  • Select appropriate technical systems, including both software and hardware
  • Keep up with changes in the technology landscape
  • Make sure the software is kept up to date and/or that bugs are fixed

In many cases, much more is involved, including:

  • Building tools, maintaining them and writing documentation
  • Managing servers, storage and other technical infrastructure

What’s needed to set up and maintain a shared methodological system

Documenters and tool authors mentioned the following:

  • Developing and/or capturing the organisation’s documentation methodology
  • Determining the best data structure and moving the organisation’s data into this structure
  • Time to “vet, verify, clean, capture and manage” the data Establishing internal systematic methodologies and processes for using the system consistently across the organisation
  • Conducting regular and ongoing capacity-building and training for staff to make sure that systems were used consistently. Staff turnover and/or working with volunteers added a significant burden here.
  • Making sure the methodologies are kept up to date and relevant to the work the organisation is doing.


External support can help, but successful collaboration around tools requires dedicated time and resources

Some organisations have been able to mitigate their technology-related challenges to a certain extent through relationships with external technology consultants and tool providers (see the Extra Resources page for some organisations offering support in this space).

However, tool developers we spoke to noted that low capacity – whether tech capacity, time, funding resources, or low connectivity – is a persistent challenge.

This is especially notable when it comes to tool co-development efforts (i.e. tool developers working with specific documenter communities or organisations to build or customise a tool for their specific needs). As one tool developer said: “They just don’t have the time.”


Organisations tend to use different tools across their workflows, but these don’t always work together smoothly

Most organisations we spoke to relied on a combination of formats and tools to support their workflow, rather than one all-encompassing system.

While using different tools enabled them to expand what they were able to do, and allowed them to use tools that more closely matched their needs and areas of focus, this also posed challenges around interoperability.

Organisations working within networks can experience particular challenges in getting a
network-wide system working smoothly

Contributing factors included:

  • varying tools and methodologies used by different organisations within the network
  • grassroots organisations in the network facing more limited access to tools in
    comparison to national- or international-level organisations in the network
  • language barriers. Documenters working in a network spoke about, for example, a
    central database for network members being available only in English, or in another
    language not spoken at the local level. As one documenter explained,

    “Sometimes partners need to do double work, using their own detailed documentation and then coding it again in our database.”

Sometimes documentation systems also need to incorporate popular apps (or in cases of low internet connectivity, SMS) to collect information.

Documenters reported challenges in organising information that came through these types of channels. As one said,

“Whatsapp is used a lot because it is what most people are using in the
region. Often the reports come in chronological order of what happens, and sometimes include
photos and videos … [but] we struggle to keep the files all together.”


Data analysis is key to documenters’ work, but often a challenge

A high number of documenters we spoke to noted how important analysis was to their work, but many reported challenges in this area.

Some documenters reported being unsure of what kinds of analysis were needed to meet their objectives. Others had a clear idea of the type of analysis they would like to do, but faced barriers to implementation such as:

  • The tools they were already using (e.g. for data management) didn’t perform the desired type of analysis
  • They didn’t know what tools, or features of tools, could be used to perform the desired type of analysis, or they lacked the necessary data analysis expertise
  • They didn’t have the type, format or quantity of data needed for the analysis they wanted to do. Many organisations struggled with incomplete datasets due to factors such as constraints on collection capacity and limited access to certain pieces of information.

The overwhelming majority of organisations we spoke to did not have data scientists on their team.


In tools, documenters are looking for more flexibility, more offline functionality, and more support for local languages

In talking about what they would like to see in a tech tool, documenters mentioned:

  • More options when it comes to importing and exporting data.
  • Increased flexibility in tools and more options for customisation
  • Support for more, multiple, or local languages within the tool, including documentation in local languages
  • More options and flexibility in tagging (for example, the ability to use multiple tags for a single entry)
  • More options and capacity for analysis and data aggregation
  • More offline functionality (documenters cited a number of reasons for this, including unreliable or no internet access, power outages, and surveillance)
  • Greater tool usability for different levels of technological capacity
  • Ability to easily update existing information in the system and add new data to alreadyregistered cases
  • Capacity to record and preserve diverse types of secondary sources (for example, as posted on social media)


When it comes to organisational security, documenters use a variety of strategies but most are not able to mitigate the risks they face to the extent necessary

While most organisations we spoke to were acutely aware of the multiple security risks they faced, resource constraints and lack of staff and technical capacity meant that many organisations were not able to mitigate security threats to the extent deemed necessary.

Despite this, most organisations followed mitigation strategies to the best of their capacity, taking into account the specific risks the organisation faced, given their context.

What kinds of risks do civil society documenters of human rights violations face?

Documenting human rights violations in high-risk contexts can introduce significant risks for all involved, including victims/survivors, witnesses, families, whistleblowers, lawyers, and of course documenters themselves.

Documenters of human rights violations can be vulnerable to, among others:

  • Office raids
  • On-the-spot searches
  • Physical threats and arrest
  • Cuts to electricity and internet
  • Malware on devices and surveillance
  • Phishing, hacking or other methods of gaining unauthorised access to systems

Common security strategies and challenges

Despite their resource and other constraints, the organisations we spoke to followed mitigation strategies to the best of their capacity, taking into account the risks they faced in their own context. To the extent possible, security measures were generally taken across their workflow, from collection through to sharing.

Data collection

In hostile environments, mere possession of data collection tools – cameras, audio recorders, notebooks and notepads – can jeopardise documenters’ safety.

  • Many documenters use their personal mobile phones to collect evidence, as these are multi-purpose and therefore less obvious.
    • While this strategy was often the best option compared to using more obvious tools, documenters also reported concerns around mobile phones’ inherent insecurity, and the fact that phones can themselves be searched.
    • Many of those we spoke to expressed a need to be able to conceal the data they collect on their device, while some reported doing this already. (In our research into tech tools for human rights documentation, we found some tools that offer concealment features – see the Tools Table for more).


Information storage

Depending on their own risk assessments, documenters approach secure storage in different ways.

  • Some store nothing at all on internet-connected systems. Documenters using this system felt that the risks involved in this strategy here were outweighed by the greater control they gained over their data, or, in one case, that it was easier for their partners to understand the security risks involved in an offline system.
    • Those who used hard drives or non-internet-connected computers for storage reported difficulties in securing physical space unaffiliated with the organisation for storage of hard drives or non-internet-connected computers.
  • Alternatively, some opt to use fully cloud-based services, assessing their risk to be greater if data were stored on local devices.
    • Some documenters reported challenges in identifying which country would be the safest to host a server, in light of the data they were collecting.
  • Some store data in two different locations: often one of cloud-based and the other a hard drive or computer with no internet access.
    • Those who manage both online and offline datasets reported difficulties integrating and managing two different sets of their data.
  • In cases of severe risk, some organisations reported in certain cases not collecting or storing any data at all.


In most cases, documenters also make sure to use security protocols such as:

  • Strong passwords and two-factor authentication
  • Strong user roles/permissions and vigilant monitoring of access to systems.


Sharing and communication

Security measures practised here include:

  • Only sharing information in person, e.g. via a hard drive and only with trusted partners (this can include accountability mechanisms).
  • Using an encrypted email or messaging service like Protonmail (email) or Signal (messaging)
    However, some organisations reported defaulting to email in the absence of a formalised system for sharing information
  • Only sharing information in aggregated form, for example via reports containing statistics of violations, broad trends and some anonymised testimony.


A number of organisations mentioned the importance of trainings and handbooks, as well as standardised operating procedures and protocols for tools.


Most civil society documenters of human rights violations don’t aim to provide court-ready evidence

Though many of the documenters we spoke to worked to verify the evidence they collected, most saw their role as providing a starting point for investigations rather than as creators of court-ready evidence.

Some specific challenges to collecting evidence for accountability mechanisms were mentioned:

  • Lack of clarity around what data is necessary to collect as evidence. Some organisations found that this led to a “’collect everything” approach, without a clear vision for what this information could and would be used for.
  • Making sure that evidence isn’t tampered with in storage and being able to prove it.
    Staff collecting data in the field not being trained in evidentiary standards.
  • For those collecting secondary sources such as evidence posted on social media: the sheer amount and diversity of what’s available and the challenge of verifying social media content.

As a result of these and other challenges, most organisations consulted did not design their data collection methods with the specific evidence-gathering requirements of accountability mechanisms in mind.

Read the research findings on Tool Development