International human rights fact-finding during COVID and beyond: first-of-its-kind guide to support restricted access interviews

The first, detailed guide on collecting witness testimony for human rights investigations with restricted access has been released by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Truth and Accountability Program. 

Restricted access interviews: a guide to interviewing witnesses in remote human rights investigations, is a freely-available publication, developed with the assistance of global experts. It provides recommendations on gathering witness testimony remotely and/or from witnesses outside the country under investigation.  

Human rights fact-finding missions and investigations are increasingly denied access to the country under investigation for political, security and health reasons, making access to witnesses extremely limited. This guide will support the operation of human rights and international law investigations during the global COVID pandemic and beyond.  

Restricted access interviews draws on PIAC’s experience conducting interviews on the Sri Lankan civil war; as well as the experience of over 30 investigators, researchers and lawyers working for UN Inquiries, non-government organisations (NGO), and international courts and tribunals.   

Most international investigations into the gravest conflicts, crises and violations of the 21st century have not been given full, if any, access to the country. Each investigation requires an investigation strategy and interview methods that are tailored to the circumstances. This guide consolidates the useful lessons that can be extracted from past investigators. 

PIAC has worked closely on Restricted access interviews with the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI). IICI is simultaneously releasing a companion, short guide, IICI guidelines on remote interviewing

The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, former Chair of UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korea (DPRK):

‘This guide to interviewing witnesses in remote investigations is timely and deals with a most urgent topic. The recent vivid images on television screens in our homes in Australia of the chaos and renewed violence and danger in Afghanistan, show us once again how vital it is to bring those who oppress universal human rights ultimately to justice. This was done in the years after the end of the Second World War, including in the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo. Accountability requires institutions; trained personnel; and careful gathering of compelling evidence. Yet the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, and other great crimes against international law, will try to hide their wrongdoing. Means must be found to gather the testimony that can bring the wrongdoers to Justice. It will not happen in every case. It will only happen in a minority of cases. But it will happen. And we must never give up our demand and expectation for accountability. This guide shows that this is possible. The work of the commission of inquiry of the UN Human Rights Council, that I chaired 2013-14, was an illustration of what can be done to gather the evidence. The gathering of evidence will impose pressure on nation states and the United Nations to achieve accountability. Investigators can easily cross physical borders and use new technology to gather evidence; to report it; and to demand action where the evidence is compelling. Those people who fell from the departing planes at Kabul airport must not die in vain. The women judges in Afghanistan who are burning their books to escape the fury of the Taliban, must not be ignored. Their fear and desperation must be responded to. Those who commit crimes against international human rights law must be rendered answerable. This guide is an illustration of how, in practical terms, this can be done. The guide deserves a large audience. The authors deserve praise. The victims deserve attention and action.’

Chris Sidoti, Commissioner of the UN Commission of Inquiry into OPT/ Israel and former member of the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar 

‘International human rights investigations have become among the most effective means of finding fact, allocating responsibility and ensuring accountability for atrocities. That’s why perpetrators keep investigators at a distance wherever possible. That’s what has happened to the teams I work with in leading UN investigations. PIAC has responded usefully and practically to investigators’ need for guidance in conducting investigations remotely. There is no guide like this. It fills a damaging void. It will assist investigators everywhere confronting the refusal of State authorities to permit them to do their job.’ 

Daniela Gavshon, PIAC Truth and Accountability Program Director: 

‘There are numerous issues to consider when investigators are conducting restricted access interviews. These can include: diversity of witnesses available and entry points to witness communities; availability of, and access to, referral and support services; security issues like who can monitor communications, or whether there are risks of reprisals; and technological and logistical considerations including access to devices, power and the internet or data, and whether witnesses have a safe private space to conduct the interview. This guide was written to assist investigators to evaluate whether, how and when they should conduct witness interviews in restricted access contexts. The hostility of parties under investigation or the risks of the COVID pandemic should not impede investigation of violence and injustice, but it may alter how investigations approach their fact-finding mandate.’

John Ralston, former Executive Director of IICI, and PIAC advisor: 

‘Any decision to conduct an investigation or interview remotely, using modern communications technology, must be as a result of careful consideration of many factors. These include risks such as causing or exacerbating psychological harm to victim-witnesses and eyewitnesses of traumatic crimes or violations; exposing witnesses to unacceptable security risks; and conducting ineffective interviews. The companion guides will support investigators and organisations who wish to work remotely.’ 

Melissa Parke, member of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen: 

‘The Restricted Access Interviews Guide will be incredibly useful for investigators in fact finding missions that face immense challenges in accessing the country under investigation, such as the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen.’ 

Mike Smith, former Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea:  

‘This guide will be invaluable for future commissions of inquiry, domestic and international, where access to an affected group of victims is problematic. Such investigations, of which the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Eritrea that I was involved with is a good example, raise a host of challenges – legal, logistic, linguistic, ethical, cultural and many others – that every such exercise finds itself having to address and resolve. This guide, which covers all of these issues and more in a clear, sensible and practical manner, will be immensely helpful for investigators all over the world.’ 

The companion guides will be formally launched by The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG at a joint PIAC-IICI online event on 28 September. 

Download ‘Restricted access interviews: a guide to interviewing witnesses in remote human rights investigations’ on PIAC’s website. 

The IICI guidelines on remote interviewing can be downloaded from the IICI website. 

MEDIA CONTACT: Gemma Pearce, PIAC Media and Communications Manager: 0478 739 280. 


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