Blog Post

Human Rights and HASTAC

Yesterday some of the HASTAC staff met with Robin Kirk of the Duke Human Rights Center ( and We wanted to explore the possibility of collaborating, in exploring some of the issues at the intersection of human rights and digital media/new technologies. We were all stunned by the situation in Iran this summer, as tweeters, cell phone users, and users of the internet all over the world changed the course of history--it was amazing to have such a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow (sometimes literally!) experience of a conflict on the other side of the world. And it was empowering in unimagined ways, to be participants, not just observers in that conflict. The world literally opened up for us this summer in ways that took us by surprise, and we wanted to talk about ways that HASTAC might be able to be involved, to join the larger conversation on what's happening and how, and to orchestrate some serious thought power around these issues. In the course of our conversation I had the great luck to learn lots about what's happening vis-a-vis human rights at Duke and around the globe.

Everyone has heard of Amnesty International and there have been numerous "situations" around the world that make it into the flow of media stories. What I didn't realize was that most human rights abuses take place on a much, much smaller scale, all over the world, and almost no one (except the perpetrators and victims) even knows they're happening. The key word here is "almost." You see, abuses often happen in places that are supposed to be safe, places like police stations and homes. (note: I use the terms police station and police loosely, to mean any sort of holding place and guards who are acting on behalf of a larger power structure. Could be government or not.)

Robin told us that often when people are taken into a police station (under suspicion for something but not yet charged, or even just for questioning) the power inequity between the "suspect" and the policeman can be justification enough, in the minds of the policemen, for the police to flex some muscle, i.e., to abuse or intimidate the suspect. And surprisingly, there is a lot of video footage, often taken with police cell phones, and often as trophies to show what they did. Unfortunately, video footage like this is infrequently used to right the wrongs, rather, it's used to swagger and boast to friends and colleagues. (Check out the video link below--an Egyptian video of this very type. It can be hard to watch or listen to, and isn't for young children.)

I also learned about the group, WITNESS, the international human rights organization founded by musician and activist Peter Gabriel (, which donates video cameras and provides technical and tactical guidance to human rights groups around the world. HR groups can use these video cameras to create video documentation of human rights abuses and WITNESS then helps to get these videos into the hands of people who can actually combat the injustices filmed.

We then talked about how sometimes just giving an abused person a video camera might not be helpful. Say for instance, in the case of a woman who's been raped. It might not be helpful for her to go out and try to film the rapist. One can imagine that might cause, rather than alleviate, a whole host of problems.

Cathy Davidson told a related story, one that pulled together a number of the HR challenges we had discussed. She told us about a DML Competition winning project, wherein cell phones were given to young girls in an Indian village, so that they could learn English by playing a game on these phones. The goal was for the girls to become fluent enough to qualify for a government language program that would help them to gain jobs in call centers, thereby exponentially increasing their earning potential. The girls were given phones one day, but the next day most of them didn't have the phones any more. Their brothers had taken the phones from them! The project leaders quickly morphed the project such that phones were given to brother/sister pairs who were only allowed to keep them if the girls had adequate phone-time to play the game and learn English. So the phone access issue was solved, but this story highlighted to me abuse issues based on gender and power (like policemen who film themselves brutalizing innocents just because they can).

The Soul of the New Machine, an international conference, was held in May 2009 at Berkeley. It focused on two areas of justice and human rights work: 1) evidence gathering and documentation and 2) advocacy and outreach. They also launched the Mobile Challenge, a competition for using mobile technology in human rights investigations and advocacy. Check out more information on the conference and the Mobile Challenge (and watch videos of the talks given) at

And finally, we talked about archives for human rights media. Currently there are some archive collections of human rights media, but imagine how useful such archives could be, if they were secure and easily accessible: human rights advocates and defenders worldwide could use them to catalyze the public, governments, courts, and political institutions to act. The Archive for Human Rights at Duke ( "identifies, collects, and provide access to materials generated by organizations and individuals working within and having significant impact on the field of human rights. Working in close partnership with the Duke Human Rights Center, the Archive is a key component of Duke University's commitment to social justice, social equality, and social responsibility." There's been talk of a HASTAC Scholar Forum this year on human rights and archives. I hope we'll see it! 


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