In June 2018 TJWG interviewed Nina Atallah, a freelance human rights documentation methods trainer with over 25 years’ experience working in Palestine. Ms. Atallah helped establish her organisation’s first computerised database for recording violations and trained and led field researcher teams. She later began offering training for human rights documenters in other parts of the Middle East, including Yemen, Morocco and for Syrian staff both in and outside Syria.

She was the primary author of a training manual created by Euromed Rights: Training Guide on Human Rights Documentation for Syrian HRDs. Although designed for the Syrian context, the Training Guide is an excellent resource for anyone working in the field on the key elements of human rights documentation practice.

TJWG: Please tell us about yourself and how you first became involved in human rights work.

Ms. Atallah: I started in 1985, working with a human rights organisation. I didn’t go for it because I was especially interested in human rights work; at that time, it wasn’t well-known what human rights meant, not just in Palestine, but everywhere. I applied for the organisation as a job, just to work. After about a year, they started to see me as part of the work on documentation. At that time, all the documentation was done manually. They had started the work in 1979, and they had a big file of papers and documents, so they wanted a way to computerise all this information from the field. I joined the team that started to prepare for this transition. I put together the dictionary for the database, as we documented all the information in code, not text. We had to make a code for everything: for perpetrators, violations, instruments, locations, and rights (according to international standards). We wanted the database fields to be I liked the job and was committed to the work I was doing: they helped me to develop myself a lot. They brought a programmer to the organisation and he stayed for six months and helped me to learn how to deal with the programme. 

TJWG: How many years were you with the organisation?

Ms. Atallah: The first period was 20 years, then for two years as a consultant. Then they asked me to join them full time again for 11 years. 

TJWG: When did you start doing training for groups outside your own?

Ms. Atallah: I started in 2004 in Yemen. I went 4-6 times, and trained women, lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists in general. It was a very good experience. I learned how to start with training people from scratch, and this was how I developed my training programme. Each group has unique needs. When training women you need to know how to interview women victims of gender-based violence, for example. You have to know when training journalists that the way they gather information is different to gathering information for human rights documentation. So, I was continually developing my programme to the point where I felt it was a good fit for everyone, but it would be altered according to the context and their needs. I try to keep things interactive, by solving challenges in documentation together. The challenges and obstacles are often very similar between contexts. 

TJWG: Can you give us an example of an instance where you helped a trainee group solve a particular problem that had an impact in their context?

Ms. Atallah: The Syrian human rights activists I trained were outside the country, and I had to train them very well so they could follow up with field researchers inside Syria. There was a huge turnover in fieldworkers inside Syria – they would be killed, arrested and so on – so we were constantly training new fieldworkers. We tried sometimes to give training online to people inside Syria. As time went by I discovered that we needed to work together with these organisations to train people outside Syria so that they could train their own people inside. So, we put together this training manual with Euromed Rights to help them run training themselves. It gives a full and detailed explanation of every point I usually cover in my programme. All the examples relate to Syrian examples, not general examples. The manual was also gender sensitive. This was because there are a lot of women victims in Syria. 

In the Syrian case, women who had been arrested would often be divorced by their husband or thrown out of the house because their arrest was seen as shameful culturally. As a result, there were a lot of women out on their own, while also dealing with having been sexually harassed or raped while in prison. Human rights organisations couldn’t get enough data on this harassment in prison. It didn’t happen continually – sometimes it was just threatened – but it was a major issue. This was something the human rights organisations in neighbouring countries wanted to address for the women in the Syrian refugee camps.

I also train locally in Palestine for mainstream organisations. I give sessions to university students who are taking the human rights and democracy programme for law students. I also gave training in Bahrain with the UN, for Syrian and Iraqi women, as well as in Tunisia for the Arab Institute for Human Rights. I worked in Morocco also training the national human rights commission on how to write records when visiting juveniles in prison: what violations they are facing, and how to report on them. 

TJWG: When you are working with groups that are in the early stages of their work, or trying to start a new documentation project, what are some of the challenges they face in getting started?

Ms. Atallah: The training of the field researcher should be accumulative. When you hire a new field researcher, they should always be well trained in the law first, before they learn how to gather the information. They should be aware of international law, and also about local law, because when you want to analyse violations, you need to do so according to these laws. In different countries different laws are of greater concern, according to the situation. If women are the focus, for example, the researchers need to know about CEDAW. I always insist on the condition that I won’t start giving documentation training unless they have first had two to three days on international law. So, when we start talking about torture, for example, they know whether it is a violation or a grave breach or a crime against humanity. Human rights activists are often unaware of the different levels of violations. 

Advocacy is also very important. If it’s a new organisation, they need to know the purpose of their documentation work. New organisations should also have a legal researcher. It is not the job of the field researchers to write the external reports. This is the role of the legal researcher, assessing the field information against the legal concepts, for use in advocacy, litigation and so on. Launching a campaign on a specific topic to achieve a result for all this documentation is a big part of the work also. 

To save time and energy for the organisation, everything should be computerised. So, having an IT person to find the right software for your specific work and the kind of information you need to store and search is very important. Having the right way to get the information out, flexibly and conveniently is essential. 

TJWG: What are some of the mistakes you commonly see human rights groups making in their human rights work?

Ms Atallah: They know that it is an important part of the work, but they don’t train their field researchers well. They don’t follow up with the field researcher properly to check if the information gathered is credible or accurate. They can end up with a huge amount of information that is unusable. People who are aware of the objectives of the research need to follow up daily with the fieldworkers. Then you want to find the right program to digitise the data.

TJWG: How has human rights documentation changed over the years you have been in the field?

Ms. Atallah: If you have the right vision, it doesn’t matter what you document. A long time ago we used to monitor and document Israeli violations. But in 1994 when the Palestinian Army came after the Oslo Agreement, we had to monitor and document Palestinian violations also. The organisation should align its vision to new trends, or to new political or social changes. This should first be discussed internally, and decisions should be made on how to deal with these trends. Organisations should continually update their vision on why they want to document, and this will lead to how to document. For example, when you are talking about occupation, your main purpose is to end the occupation, and all of your campaigns support this end. When you are looking at the violations of your own government, your aim is to improve the situation of human rights and to make your own government aware of them. For example, we give a lot of training to policemen on how to treat people when they arrest them, to interrogators about how to interrogate people within their rights as prisoners. We had to train judges to consider the rights of those they are making judgements over. So, our remit changed over time. There are also different stages of advocacy according to who the target it. With our own government, we send a letter to them first, we give them time to make changes, raise awareness, publish locally, and if they don’t listen, we advocate outside. If the organisation has a vision of the purpose of their documentation, they will be on the right track from the beginning. This discussion about your evolving aims needs to be happening continually, depending on how the environment is changing.

TJWG: You mentioned earlier the importance of the organisation maintaining its objectivity and credibility. How can organisations ensure they achieve this in the eyes of their partners and the local and international community?

Ms. Atallah: The most important thing in documentation is to be accurate concerning the details of what happened, whether you like it or not, whether it is against your opinions or beliefs or not. You are not there to judge the situation according to your own opinion or beliefs. You are there to say what happened factually. If you do that, and if you ensure the field researchers do the same, you will get the credibility at the local and international level. Even if you say something against your own government, if it is right, you will maintain your credibility. But if you fail to do this in one instance and are caught out, they will claim that all your work is flawed. This was crucial for us during the occupation: we had to be very cautious about the details. In some cases, we had to meet 20 people to get the real story. 

Always record exactly what happened and don’t put your opinion about the event – this might go in the legal analysis. It is also important to mention any improvements in situations of human rights abuse, as well as the negative – this proves your objectivity. The legal judgements on the field report will come during the analysis. You ensure your field researchers are trained to do the same: if you feel like they are biased, they can’t do the work. Review all the information they bring in and discuss it with them. This happens before the information is entered into the database. Don’t enter anything until you’re sure it’s an accurate report.

TJWG: What are the qualities are of a good field researcher?

Ms. Atallah: In my opinion they need to be responsible and have a strong belief in human rights. It can’t just be a job to them. They also need to have the abilities and skills necessary to help them be accepted into the communities they will be working in, and to be able to deal with people well. They have to be able to discern between correct or contradictory information. Ideally your field researchers should be willing to learn, people who enjoy reading and learning more about the area they are working in. Again, the most important thing is to follow up with them regularly. Although we are often afraid to lose field researchers in human rights work, it’s important not to avoid being firm with the researcher if you feel like they don’t want to learn and are repeating errors. 

When I was responsible for twelve men in the field, in the beginning, they didn’t want to accept a woman as their boss. I had a serious problem with two of them. One resigned, but the second one began gradually to accept and to like me. It is not easy working with people from different ways of thinking, especially in Arab countries where few women are working at senior levels. But you have to deal with this and make them aware of the issue of gender. There are a lot of difficulties in human rights because you have to be human on the one hand, but you have to ensure the work is on the right track, for the benefit of the organisation.

Last Updated: September 16, 2018

Transcribed by Sarah A. Son