Thursday, March 16, 2006

Human Rights Watch and Librarians

“We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive
practices and respect international human rights law.”
Human Rights Watch

The above quote summarizes the main objective of Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization which emerged from the Helsinki Watch. For background information, the Helsinki Watch was established in 1978 to ensure that the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords were, in fact, being honored by the various Soviet countries. With time, other Watch Committees were established around the world and then united into the Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization in 1988. HRW is the largest human rights organization in the United States, whose headquarters are located in New York. Each year, HRW conducts numerous research activities and campaigns (as they like to use the term) throughout the world, to document human rights violations and abuses. First hand observations, statistical reports with quantifiable data, in-depth interviews, and photographs of human rights violations are collected, published and disseminated to the media and government entities. It is through public outcry and condemnation that HRW hopes that those governments and individuals carrying out such violations will end their inhumane practices. They also unite with other Human Rights groups for additional support on an issue and address these concerns to official organizations including the United Nations as well as other international governmental bodies.
HRW addresses issues such as child soldiers, HIV/AIDS, GLBT Rights, refugees, Women’s Rights, academic freedom, landmines, and prisons just to name a few. As a NGO, HRW is totally funded by contributions of private foundations and individual memberships and donations. In this way, it is able to confront the United States government on its human rights violations such as the use of the death penalty which HRW is against. From its newsletter update of February 2006, HRW describes its successful campaigns against Egypt’s treatment of Sudanese refugees, its support of the African Union’s summit where Sudan was rejected to be the head of the union, and Morocco’s commitment to stop child labor abuses after being cited by HRW.
In a telephone interview with Ms. Shira Roman-Pokorny, Manager of the San Francisco center, she reports that HRW centers perform three major activities: advocacy, outreach/education and fundraising. Due to the fact that no governmental funding is permitted, all HRW centers must raise their own operating funds to exist. There are 233 paid employees of HRW throughout the world but the work of the organization is helped immensely by that of volunteers, interns and specialists who give of their time and efforts. When asked if there was a staff position in the organization of librarian or archivist, Ms. Roman-Pokorny answered no. She explained that there may be people on staff who have such degrees in Library Science but that there is no position as that of librarian. Material is gathered and recorded through the use of computers and that researchers may have additional ways of retrieving and storing their data.
When questioned why there was not a HRW center in Miami with Miami being such a hotbed of human rights events such as the Wet Foot, Dry Foot controversy for Cubans and the repatriation of Haitians back to their home country without due process of law, Ms. Roman-Pokorny responded that maybe other human rights groups were addressing these issues and second, that there must be adequate funding for a site to be established and currently those funds were not available for Miami. It is surprising that HRW does not have a site in Miami with the ease of access to the Caribbean, Central and South America, places which have been in the news recently with all types of human rights violations.
Of importance to librarians is the fact that HRW is affiliated with other human rights organizations which focus of the freedom of information access and exchange. It is one of the 70 members of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), which through computer technology provides up to date information on freedom of expression violations and provides support to defend those whose freedoms of expression have been limited. In addition, several new groups monitoring freedom of expression and academic freedom have emerged out of their work with HRW. An example is the British based organization, Index on Censorship, which looks at freedom of the press violations and issues around the world.
HRW can be of valuable service to librarians as librarians can be to the organization. First, HRW has internships available to those wanting experience in advocacy work. Second, the organization publishes numerous reports each year and compiles them into an annual book of world reports which is available for purchase through its bookstore. The compilation work would be an asset to academic libraries, especially for the Social Science collection. The cost is approximately $40.00 for the book. Thirdly, HRW sponsors an International Film Festival, held each year in London and New York. These documentaries and films expose the human rights issues and conditions facing people throughout the globe. A traveling film festival, a smaller selection from the international one, is available for licensing for a fee and would make an informative public and/or academic library program for patrons and students.
Lastly, HRW is always looking for volunteers and interns and it may be here that librarians find the ideal place in which to volunteer their time and efforts. The knowledge base and research skills which librarians possess will be an added asset to this valuable organization.

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Thanks to PE.

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