Human Rights and the Politics of Computer Software

by Joost Hiltermann
published in MER150

Once the exclusive province of supranational bodies like the UN and small independent watchdog organizations like Amnesty International, concern for human rights has blossomed. Existing institutions have grown, expanding their scope and stepping up their activities, while a new generation of human rights organizations, often quite specialized in narrow areas of concern like censorship, or explicitly political in their aims, has seen the light of day.

By the 1980s, the struggle to defend human rights assumed such dimensions as to trigger a division of labor between highly automatized centers in the West which process information with a view to lobbying national governments, and smaller organizations in the Third World which document abuses within their own regions and intervene directly with the authorities. Both play vital roles in publicizing and contesting human rights violations. Yet their interaction is complicated by differential access to funding and technology.

Human rights organizations in the West make it their business to collect available information through their links with organizations based where violations take place and to take action, according to their mandate, with the authority responsible for the violation. Amnesty International, for example, focuses on political prisoners, Article 19 on censorship, the British Refugee Council on refugee concerns, the Committee to Protect Journalists on the media, and SOS Torture on torture and maltreatment in prisons. Such organizations tend to be well endowed and highly automated, employing expensive and sophisticated computer technology. The information that passes through these centers in usually structured in bibliographic format, facilitating search and retrieval. The family of human rights organizations has grown to the extent that additional organizations needed to be established that specialize in the technology of processing human rights data, like HURIDOCS, INTERDOC and others.

The agenda of these organizations may differ from that of the centers in the field. Based in the West, they operate under different, often more liberal, conditions. Their purpose is to apply pressure, either directly through quiet diplomacy or indirectly by publicizing abuses, on the responsible authorities to end violations. The frequency of a certain violation demonstrates the gravity of the situation. The weakness of these organizations is that they, because of their location and agenda, have often become far removed from the original event whose occurrence they have set out to protest. The danger is that the separate agenda, combined with the power of money and technology, induces organizations based in the field to play auxiliaries to the centers in the West, providing information upon demand, sometimes at the expense of actions required on the local level.

Organizations in the field have an immediate interest in changing realities on the ground. Their focus may be less on the frequency of certain violations than on subtle changes in patterns of violations. Their aim is to contest particular events as well as certain aspects of events in a constant give-and-take with the authorities. To use an example from the Israeli-occupied West Bank: Whereas Western organizations may protest Israeli house demolitions and sealings as a punitive measure, based on the number of demolitions in a given period, local groups must also pay attention to detail -- for instance, how much time inhabitants get to remove their belongings from the house that is to be demolished, whether the demolition is accompanied by violence against the family members, and how often families have the chance to submit an appeal to the High Court.

Once the necessary data have been collected, deductions can be made as to changes in policy, which is a prime factor in devising the appropriate tactics needed to intervene effectively with the authorities. It is then the task of local organizations to ensure that appropriate action is in fact taken, not only through their own channels but also by the human rights centers based in the West. In other words, those who are active in the field must seek to influence the use of the information they have collected in order to maximize results in their effort to improve the local situation.

This potential conflict of interest is not always immediately clear to human rights activists in the field. Although they may be experts in their knowledge of human rights violations, they are probably novices in the ways information can be processed. The result may therefore be inefficient or inappropriate use of crucial human rights information. The following case illustrates this point.

Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man, the West Bank affiliate of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, is a Palestinian human rights organization founded by lawyers in Ramallah in 1979. Its goals include defending the human rights of the Palestinian population under occupation, and holding the occupying power to its obligations to uphold the rule of law and international conventions.

In its first years, Al-Haq staff monitored prison conditions, acts of violence committed by Israeli soldiers and settlers, administrative punishments and land confiscation. They pressured the military authorities to publish the orders and regulations which they had steadily been enacting without informing the subject population of their content. As Al-Haq expanded its scope in the 1980s, it incorporated new areas of concern into its work, like workers’ rights and women’s rights, and added new activities like legal advice and human rights education.

Al-Haq apprises the military authorities of particular events or patterns of events, argues their illegality by international standards, and requests the cessation of these violations as well as redress for the victims. If the authorities are intransigent on a particular issue -- as, for example, with house demolitions and sealings -- Al-Haq launches a public campaign to get pressure on the authorities from outside organizations.

From its inception, Al-Haq has also aimed to help lay the infrastructure for a healthy judicial system in a future independent Palestinian state. It has endeavored to prepare the population’s collective consciousness for its future task of organizing Palestinian society in a just and equitable manner. Al-Haq thus sees itself very much as a local actor, in addition to being a source of information for the world community at large.

Yet the organization is dependent on the Western world. It is mainly Western organizations and governments that can pressure the occupying authorities to abide by the rule of law, limited though the results of such pressures have been. Furthermore, it is in the West that the organization procures its funding.

In 1984, as its activities increased and its filing cabinets began to overflow, Al-Haq started investigating the possibility of setting up a computerized database to organize the information its fieldworkers were collecting in a more efficient manner. With the general growth of the organization in 1986, the necessary resources were freed for the project, and specific members of the staff were assigned to carry it out. All were relatively new both to computer technologies and to the intricacies of information science.

At once an internal debate ensued over which computer software package to purchase -- a ready-made package called Inmagic or dBaseIII+. To most in the organization who were aware of the debate, the differences between the two packages were unclear. The debate remained innocuous and localized until the Inmagic supporters suggested that Al-Haq cooperate with other local organizations as well as with a US-based group, all of which had just purchased Inmagic. It was now clear that this was not a matter of better or more appropriate technology, but rather a basic political decision about what the organization stood for and how it saw itself carrying out its mission.

Al-Haq’s policy in the struggle for human rights had already been defined, but was now clarified. Information about human rights violations is communicated to organizations abroad, not as a matter of routine but with a specific purpose in mind: They are asked to take a particular type of action according to the circumstances. The information that is sent out therefore must be processed, not “raw.” From this it followed that the database would have to be first and foremost for internal research, to detect and verify patterns of violations, not to provide a library of available resources. It became clear that Inmagic, a package attuned to the needs of libraries, could not do the job. Al-Haq consequently chose to acquire the dBaseIII+ package and hired a person to program it according to the design developed by three staff members. In the end, Al-Haq also purchased Inmagic, but only for its growing library.

The controversy over the choice of computer package for Al-Haq’s database touched at the heart of the organization’s mission. If the organization had adopted the bibliographic system of processing information, in practice most of the organization’s time and resources would have catered to the demands of the outside clientele at the expense of other activities that might deserve priority. It is unclear how far the organization could have continued in that direction before the discrepancy would have surfaced as a major contradiction between the organization’s goals and methods. At that point the organization would have had to redefine its goals or overhaul its program to return to its original track.

During a database conference sponsored by HURIDOCS and others in West Germanv in the fall of 1986, this issue surfaced as a point of contention between several other human rights organizations based in the Third World, on one side, and the Western sponsors of the conference on the other. A representative of Al-Haq criticized the exclusive use of bibliographically based programs. Al-Haq’s own program, clearly at variance with these systems, could not easily be linked up to the network in the West. This runs contrary to the aims of HURIDOCS, for example, which seeks to mobilize as many of the existing human rights organizations as possible by aligning their data processing systems according to the HURIDOCS standard. Al-Haq’s ideas found receptive ears among organizations which had faced similar dilemmas. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Al-Haq’s program would be adjusted to link up to the larger network without subverting the program’s essential features.

Human rights organizations, especially those in the Third World, have to decide early on what role they wish to play if they are to survive as effective entities: whether they agree to be hooked up to an international network, relaying information and thereby depending on that network for definition, or to subordinate parts of that international network to their own specific agenda by relaying already processed information, thereby mobilizing outside organizations around issues of direct local concern.

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