Chapter 4:

What Is Human Rights Monitoring?

The term monitoring, as it is used in this publication, is the process of systematically tracking activities of and actions by institutions, organizations or governmental bodies. Monitoring has been an essential component of effective human rights work for a long time and many organizations have gained valuable experience in their years of monitoring civil and political rights in their countries. In its Handbook on Fact-Finding and Documentation of Human Rights Violations, Forum-Asia explains that monitoring involves two interrelated activities: collection of information (or fact- finding) and documentation. Human rights organizations collect information and data "to determine the truth as accurately and completely as possible" concerning the compliance of a government with its human rights obligations. The handbook further explains that "documentation is the process of systematically recording and organising the information for easy retrieval and dissemination."

Focus and Purpose of Monitoring

The purpose and focus of an organization's monitoring activities will depend upon the issues the organization addresses, the goals and priorities it has set to address them, and the strategies it employs to do so. The following are examples of objectives and focuses of monitoring:

  1. providing immediate assistance: Human rights organizations may be called upon to help individuals or communities experiencing a particular crisis or problem. Monitoring in this situation may be aimed at gathering first-hand information from the victims or affected communities in order to identify the source of the problem and pursue administrative, legal or other action to obtain redress.
  2. education and mobilization: Human rights monitoring may be undertaken "for the purpose of mounting campaigns and publicity to create awareness among the public and to mobilize them to put pressure on the authorities not only to stop violations but also to prevent further violations." Fact-finding and documentation for this purpose could focus on situations affecting large communities, such as a mass demolition of homes, or on individual victims, to seek relief for the victims as well as to educate the public about the nature of the human rights violations. (See Chapter 5 on Education and Mobilization)
  3. monitoring to assess "progressive realization": As described in Chapter 2, organizations may choose to advocate for ESC rights using the provision in the ICESCR related to progressive realization. For this purpose, organizations may begin by formulating a picture of the status of a government's commitment to ESC rights by collecting documents and other information about policy statements, legislation, social programs, court rulings, and so on, which pertain to a given right. They may compare, over time, changes in the development of state activities affecting the right, thereby establishing a record of conduct to demonstrate trends. Demonstration of regressions in ESC rights policies and practices could be used in national courts or within international fora to argue that the government is failing to fulfill its international obligations.
  4. litigation: Accurate fact-finding and documentation are a critical component of building individual human rights claims and public interest cases. Monitoring activities for litigation would include first-hand collection of facts and evidence related to the specific claim. It would also involve research into the evolution of the laws being invoked and analyzing court decisions related to ESC rights claims to understand prior decisions of the courts. (See Chapter 6 on Policy Work, Legislative Advocacy and Litigation).
  5. undertaking legislative advocacy and policy formulation: Similar to the work related to monitoring for "progressive realization", data collection for these activities could involve collection of legislative documents, policy statements, social service agency programs and plans. It could also involve collecting first-hand data from affected communities and victims to provide evidence about the effect of existing policies and laws, or the need for laws and policies where they do not currently exist. (See Chapter 6 on Policy Work, Legislative Advocacy and Litigation).
  6. making submissions to intergovernmental agencies: Some human rights organizations may choose to submit reports or assist with filing complaints to intergovernmental agencies and treaty bodies. For this purpose, the focus of monitoring would be to observe the government's performance related to its international commitments. One form of monitoring would be to observe the government's compliance with recommendations produced by a treaty body in response to a government's official report. (See Chapter 7 on Work with Intergovernmental Bodies).

Principles Related to Human Rights Monitoring

Though the type of information organizations seek and the institutions and actors they monitor in their ESC rights work may differ to some extent from that related to civil and political rights work, the fundamental principles and approaches are the same.

Impartiality and Accuracy

Forum-Asia notes,

Fact-finding must be thorough, accurate and impartial. It must not only be impartial and accurate but must also be perceived as such. The results of fact-finding must be credible and reliable. In short, abundant caution should be followed to ensure the credibility of information collected and disseminated.

The extent to which the fact-finding and documentation is guided by human rights standards, rather than by ideological or partisan interests, will largely determine the level of impartiality of human rights monitoring. The accuracy of information is strengthened through the process of corroboration, that is, collecting and comparing many pieces of evidence.

Application of Human Rights Standards

Human rights monitoring involves the use of international human rights standards and consti- tutional rights guarantees to assess the information which is gathered. The standards are applied to evaluate whether or not harm done is a question of human rights, whether an individual case can be pursued as a rights case, whether proposed legislation or judicial reform should be pursued as a matter of human rights and corresponding state obligation, and so on.

Application of human rights standards to ESC rights monitoring is currently more difficult than it is for civil and political rights because, as already stated, most of these rights are less clearly defined. The standards can, nonetheless, help identify and define what information to collect. The relationship of monitoring to the elaboration of ESC rights is dynamic and dialectical: monitoring activities can help identify aspects of the core content of rights which need further elaboration, and conversely, more elaborated standards and indicators better guide activists to what they ought to monitor.

Utilizing Diverse Sources of Information

In collecting data, it is important to locate and utilize as many sources of information as possible. Some potential sources were identified by workshop participants:

  • affected communities or individuals
  • periodic government budget or policy reports
  • reports by or interviews with service and advocacy NGOs
  • papers and studies produced by academic or research institutions
  • legislative and judicial records
  • human rights commissions or other quasi-governmental bodies
  • the press

Because large communities are affected by economic and social policies, often NGOs will not have the time or financial resources to undertake the relevant primary data collection and statistical analysis themselves and will have to rely on other sources of information for their monitoring work. Groups should keep in mind that the information available through any source is biased and limited. Activists need to be resourceful, creative and persistent in identifying and using diverse sources of information.

A challenge activists may face in ESC data collection and monitoring is that a considerable portion of the economic and social data collected will take the form of technical plans, economic analyses and statistics -- information with which organizations that have traditionally focused on civil and political rights may not be comfortable and may not have the skills to analyze and understand. If such data is to be employed, it may be necessary to recruit the help of someone who does have the technical background, or developing the capacity to analyze and use such data within the organization itself. Most statistical compilations and reports issued by non-human rights institutions do not use human rights indicators and for this reason considerable cooperation between individuals experienced in analyzing human rights standards and those with other technical expertise will be required.

Data Collection from and with Victims and Affected Communities

Human rights organizations may collect information from affected communities and victims in order to determine the facts necessary for seeking redress in a given situation. Organizations may also undertake fact-finding in communities in order to present "case studies" to help illustrate how figures about human rights trends generated through statistical analysis manifest themselves on an individual basis. Such case studies give flesh to the local and national nature of individual entitlements of, and state obligations to, the rights. Forum Asia has outlined several important principles that activists should bear in mind when seeking first-hand information from affected communities and victims (see box above).


Considerations in Fact-finding with Affected Communities and Victims

Forum-Asia suggests that human rights monitors keep in mind the following principles when working with affected communities and victims:

  • Monitors should be open-minded.
  • Affected communities and victims should be the primary concern of monitors and all monitoring activities should be done with respect and empathy
  • Investigation into situations and cases can be a major intrusion into the lives of individuals and communities; activists should undertake their work with this awareness in mind.
  • Human rights fact-finding and documentation should be done in ways which are sensitive to cultural contexts and norms.

Workshop participants also stressed that collection of information by and with the community is critical to effective human rights activism. They expressed concern that too often the value of this type of community involvement is ignored, leaving the data collection and monitoring to "experts". However, individuals in the community have the most detailed and intimate knowledge of the nature and extent of their needs and the impact of programs and policies on their lives. As a result they should be involved not only in setting the agenda and priorities for human rights activism, but in the collection of data and the monitoring of events and conditions. Community monitoring is also a powerful tool for increasing the people's awareness about their rights.

Data Collection from NGOs and Community-Based Organizations

NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs) which provide services to communities, such as legal aid groups, health-care providers and community development workers are often very useful sources of information for human rights fact-finding. Practitioners have direct contact with claimants or clients and develop an intimate understanding of the problems and issues people face. They are well-situated to identify trends in the types of complaints or problems communities bring and may, therefore be able to identify patterns upon which human rights claims can be made.


The Galilee Society Collects Community Data

The Galilee Society was established by a group of local Arab health professional to address the many health and sanitation problems of Arabs in Israel. In 1992, the Galilee Society took a case to the International Water Tribunal (IWT), a non-governmental tribunal based in Amsterdam, on behalf of Bedouin living in "unrecognized villages." The Galilee Society had established community health clinics staffed by local health professionals. When there was an outbreak of hepatitis, the staffs of the clinics were able to establish a basis for litigation at the IWT. Using information and data collected by the clinics in the communities, the Society could demonstrate that the hepatitis outbreak was caused by dirty water the communities were forced to use due to Israel's deliberate denial of water services to them. The IWT ruled that there was not a justification for Israel to deny water to the unrecognized villages. (Also see chapter 1 for more about the Galilee Society.) Using Government Reports and Information


Most government agencies undertake regular data collection and analysis for the purpose of policy formulation, budgeting and periodic reporting on implementation of programs. These and other official reports are important sources of information. Human rights NGOs are normally skeptical of government-generated data and information. However, workshop participants explained that even a biased or skewed government report can be informative and useful if analyzed with a critical eye. Sometimes, taking note of what is left out of a report can be useful for discerning areas the government has avoided or neglected. Activists can also use official data to hold governments accountable for what they claim to do, employing data collected through other sources to evaluate actual performance.

Some activists also face difficulties collecting data from governmental sources. They encounter very long and arduous processes of working through government bureaucracies only to discover that the desired statistics are "classified" and unavailable to the public. Freedom of information is a fundamental issue related to effective human rights monitoring and advocacy. In many countries, disclosure mechanisms are seriously inadequate; this is an important area of advocacy for and related to ESC rights activism.

Activists face a range of other difficulties in this area depending on the contexts within which they operate. For those who rely on government reports as a source of information, a major problem is the lack of consistency in what the government reports on from year to year; one year the government may examine certain indicators while during the next period these indicators may be altogether ignored. Furthermore, activists commonly relay that even when they find pertinent statistics or information, that information has not been recorded in a way that corresponds to the rights they seek to monitor. This problem underscores the need for activists to develop human rights indicators and relate information to these indicators. It also points to the need for organizations to develop their own skills in fact-finding and in conducting surveys and other community research techniques, as well as in cross-checking information.

In addition, human rights activists have found that in countries where corruption is a serious problem, or where the ESC rights issues being explored are connected to highly controversial or volatile situations, it can be dangerous to seek government information.

One source of information that should be particularly noted is official government reports to intergovernmental agencies and treaty bodies. Under various treaties and other international agreements, states parties generally have a reporting requirement. For example, states parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are required to submit a report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights every five years. Similarly, states parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are required every four years to submit a report to that convention's monitoring body. As described earlier, the recommendations made by these bodies in response to government reports are a useful tool for tracking the compliance of governments with their international obligations.

Problems and Challenges

Though mentioned often throughout this resource, it deserves repeating that one of the biggest challenges organizations initiating work in ESC rights face is the lack of elaboration of the core contents of ESC rights. Deciding what exactly to monitor and how is especially difficult when there is not yet clear understanding of what entitlements the rights entail, what the fundamental state obligations are, and what, consequently, constitutes a violation of rights. Workshop participants stressed, however, that when human rights activists began to address civil and political rights, there was little clarity or agreement about the content of these rights and it has only been through persistent work that the standards for these rights are as detailed as they are today.

Another challenge in human rights monitoring relates to the role of non-state actors such as national and multi-national companies. The human rights approach involves holding governments accountable for their obligations based on international law and constitutional guarantees. The implementation of social policies and functioning of economies, however, involve a large and extremely complex pool of actors. In many situations, the actors primarily responsible for infringing or denying individual's rights are non-state parties. Effective human rights work ultimately must learn how best to address such actors, though currently the question of standards and accountability of non-state actors is vague and controversial. This presents an unresol

44. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), Handbook on Fact-Finding and Documentation of Human Rights Violations, Bangkok, 1994, p. 2.

45. Provea uses the term "victim" when referring to a deliberate action by the government or government officials. It uses "affected group" to refer to situations when the government has failed or omitted to develop a policy or where there is a lack of political will to address a problem for which it is responsible.

46. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), Handbook on Fact-Finding and Documentation of Human Rights Violations, Bangkok, 1994, p. 4.

47. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), op. cit., p. 6.



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