HRW Israel and Palestine (MENA) Director on Systematic Methodology and Universal Vision
Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch (Middle East and North Africa Division). Here we talk about human rights and methodology.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For Human Rights Watch, as you’re operating in over 100 countries around the world, and with your own expertise in the Israel and Palestine issue, when you’re looking at the application of human rights and international law, you have to do this methodologically. You have to do this systematically.
How do you apply them methodologically and systematically?
Omar Shakir: Step one is to make sure that you have a deep understanding of the context. That you’re engaging with a wide range of stakeholders: government authorities, NGOs, human rights victims. It is important that you’re able to be in touch with a wide cross-section of different groups.
That includes language skills, making sure the team is equipped in all the relevant languages and is able to engage a wide range of voices. HRW has a policy of speaking to all sides.
If we are documenting the use of force against demonstrators, we will always speak to the demonstrators themselves. We will try to speak to independent witnesses. Maybe, those who were bystanders who saw the event or doctors or lawyers involved in the matter. We will seek the government’s perspective too. We will try to get video footage and monitor online perspectives that may be seen.
It is obtaining all the different perspectives and then assessing what happened in the light of that, seeking the cooperation of testimony and gaining a factual account of what likely took place to the best of our abilities.
Once have a factual account, that is verified, we then proceed to, of course, do legal analysis and determine whether or not violations have taken place, publish our findings, and then conduct advocacy to seek changes where there are human rights abuses.
Jacobsen: If you’re taking a context of non-violent protests, and if you’re taking a context of getting access to all the parties involved in a complicated situation like Israel and Palestine, how do you gain access to Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, to Fatah, to medical personnel, journalists, protestors, IDF personnel, and so on?
Shakir: Every research project involves a different methodology. You have to craft one best tailored to getting results.
For example, I documented the Rabaa Massacre in Egypt. One of the largest single-day killings of protestors in modern day history. It was a year-long investigation. The way we went about that investigation is being there the day of the massacre with 800+ people being killed in the span of 12 hours. We observed what was taking place. We were on the side streets — a team of us — interviewing those who fled the killings. In the days and weeks afterwards, we went to the hospitals and talked to eyewitnesses. Then we went into the neighbourhoods. We would look at buildings overlooking the square at which the dispersal took place and interview local residents and journalists who were reporting in the square that day.
We immersed ourselves in those accounts. We reviewed video footage. We reviewed public statements made by public officials. We reviewed accounts provided to the media. Once we had a good sense of what we might conclude, we wrote to the various government authorities.
We asked them a series of detailed questions. Then you write the report. At that point, the government did not respond to our letters; we sent them three letters in the span of three months and received no response. So, instead, we relied on public statements made by government officials.
When documenting demonstrations in Gaza, for example, our foreign staff does not have access to Gaza. We have a local researcher in Gaza. She will, similarly, go to hospitals, go to journalists who were reporting. She will look at social media and see who was there on a particular event. We will write to the Israeli army or authority, depending on the body there. We seek to report on it.
Methodology depends on the context, access, and safety and security of the individuals interviewed.
Jacobsen: For those who may not know about some of the coverage about you, and given some of the prior coverage in Egypt and journalistic work too, it is not easy. It is showing a tough, resilient personality, whether it’s looking at dealing with people right in the midst who have been massacred and cataloguing it, being harshly criticized from all sides in the media, and even threats of deportation in the most recent context.
For those who want to get involved in the work, what would be your recommendation to them? How do you maintain the integrity in light of consistent critique from all sides?
Shakir: The key is having universal vision of human rights and justice. The ability to relate to somebody whether or not they are of the same religion, nationality, or speak a different language. The ability to empathize with the other and put yourself in their shoes. Often, it is putting aside stereotypes or public perceptions regarding a certain context.
I think it is quite easy in any context to dehumanize the other. I saw that firsthand in Egypt the way in which the demonstrators were reduced to sub-human in some ways. The ways Muslim Brother members were seen as not people.
Or when in the United States, I represented the men in Guantanamo Bay and their invisibility. The ability to see them beyond how they look and the government accusations.
Certainly, in the Israeli and Palestinian side, you see this with some Israelis unable to see the humanity of Palestinians who have lived over half of a century under a brutal, ugly military occupation, who face human rights abuse every day as part of normal life.
And there are Palestinians who will see rockets indiscriminately firing and killing civilians, or attacks that may kill an Israeli who is not in the army or the military, and not understand or see that person and what that means to them and their families.
The ability to be methodologically consistent and to ensure that you’re always being universal in your approach. If the faces were different and the abuses the same, would you bring the same passion and intensity to the work?
If you were not able to do that, or reach the same conclusion on similar issues in two different contexts, or if you trust one organization’s reporting in one context and not another, it might suggest that there is a need to re-check your own assumptions and ensure that you really are approaching things in a way that is methodologically and ethically consistent.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Omar.