Mobilizing Social Media for Human Rights

Peter Bouckaert from Human Rights Watch on how his organization raises awareness of the crisis in the Central African Republic.
By: /
March 17, 2014
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Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch specializing in the laws of war. He was previously part of fact-finding missions to Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and various other conflicts and has testified before the United States Senate, the ICTY in the Hague, and the Council of Europe. In this interview with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, he discusses the transformative role of digital diplomacy and information sharing via social networks in conflict zones. You can follow Peter Bouckaert on Twitter @bouckap.​

How has Twitter changed the way you work? How does Human Rights Watch use social media platforms to draw people's attention to human rights crises?

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve the world's problems with social media or other technological innovations, but Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms have become powerful tools for the human rights movement. At the core of our work at Human Rights Watch is our on-the-ground impartial investigations of human rights abuses and war crimes. Social media helps us get our information out and put pressure on public officials to stop the killings in the Central African Republic, for example. However, I think we need to distinguish between the kind of fact-driven social media campaigns that we conduct, reporting real-time information from the ground, and the more passive "feel good" social media campaigns that fool you into thinking that retweeting or liking something on Facebook will make a difference.

How do you envision Human Rights Watch’s role in mass atrocity prevention and reporting on crises, especially in situations where there is a lack of political leadership and mainstream news outlets are not giving a particular crisis sufficient media coverage?

The philosophy of Human Rights Watch's emergency work is simple: we believe that we can save lives and end abuses in conflict zones by impartially reporting on abuses and war crimes in real time. We ensure policy makers have a real-time view of what is happening and are pushed to take appropriate actions to stop the abuses or killings. We try to cut through the fog of war with our reporting, and always report on abuses conducted by all parties to the conflict. We cover the high-profile conflicts that you hear about on the large news outlets, but also try to draw greater attention to underreported crises that urgently require more attention. Our social media campaigns are especially important in the case of underreported crises, because we can influence the media to pay attention to a particular story, thereby mobilizing the public to get involved.

Do you think your live-tweeting from the Central African Republic (CAR) has had an impact on the international community’s response to the crisis there or is political will still lacking? Can these digital tools offer some promise for action against mass atrocities?

Our campaign to draw more attention to the atrocities in the Central African Republic involved a series of strategies, and not just the use social media. First of all, we hired one of the world's best photographers and documentary filmmakers, Marcus Bleasdale, to work together with me on the ground in CAR, and we collaborated on a number of strategically placed articles in Foreign Policy, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Telegraph, and other media outlets that we knew policy makers and the public pay attention to. We contacted Christiane Amanpour at CNN, and other top broadcasters, and worked together on providing major stories for them, especially in situations when they didn't have correspondents on the ground.

But what was observable to me was how our live reporting from CAR using social media, particularly Twitter, was hugely influential and changed the game. People -from humanitarians to journalists, from diplomats to locals- often approached me in Bangui asking if I am “@bouckap”, which is my Twitter handle. Clearly, many of the decisions that were made in responding to the CAR crisis, whether by the French military or by United Nations and humanitarian organizations, were influenced by the pressure we generated over Twitter. It works, but you need to be reporting reliable information from the ground, as well as images – my followers just love images.

Let me just give one concrete example of the power of Twitter in this crisis. In January, I found myself at the scene of a brutal lynching in Bangui, with anti-balaka fighters literally carving up two Muslim bodies in front of us, just 50 meters away from where French soldiers were standing passively nearby. I tweeted what I saw and within minutes was getting media calls from major French news outlets, including BBC Africa French service, Radio France International, and others. Half an hour later, the French Ambassador and General Soriano, the commander of the French forces in CAR, each called me separately to come see them. They were completely shaken by what Human Rights Watch staff were seeing and tweeting about. The next day, our Paris director was asked to attend a meeting with more than a dozen senior French officials. Of course, it appears that they wanted to control the damage of our tweeting, but they failed to understand that we are constantly on the ground using social media to document and our report human rights abuses, while the French military sends out one press release a week with rosy information that no journalist trusts. A day after, the French army chief of staff flew into Bangui, and a journalist accompanying him burst out laughing upon arrival in Bangui, saying, "All they could talk about on the flight in is “Les tweets de Human Rights Watch"! That is the power of social media, and they felt it.

Can you quantify the type of impact your Twitter reports have had on raising awareness among the global public about the situation in CAR? Has your number of followers greatly increased?

I'm not really a natural person on Twitter, and I use it as a professional tool to get out the message about what was happening in CAR. We really started on December 5, when deadly fighting broke out in Bangui and Bossangoa. That same night, Mandela died, and Thomas Fessy, the BBC correspondent, woke me up, saying, "Mandela died and now we are screwed, the CAR story will be dead as well." Actually, that was the case, but we both started live-tweeting what we were seeing day to day, and slowly interest in the CAR crisis just skyrocketed on social media, to the point where we were trending, especially in France and other European countries. My number of followers grew from about 2,000 to 13,000, and many tweets I send out were retweeted hundreds of times.  I have a very active group of followers, who are dedicated to digitally working together to stop the killings.

What are the main challenges that you face on the ground?

Using social media to report on the crisis in CAR is quite different from using it to talk about your personal life. It takes a tremendous amount of equipment and effort to assemble the information that we put out on Twitter. We often traveled more than 12 hours a day over very rough roads in a country without infrastructure, and then had to set up camp, start up a generator, hook up a satellite dish, upload the pictures we took that day, and started sending out the information. That's the main challenge, just getting out to these very remote areas and getting accurate information, dealing with all kind of problems along the way, from broken-down cars to hostile men with guns. It takes a lot of effort to pull that information together. But it makes a difference. I recently met with a top UN humanitarian official in Bangui, I noticed that the majority of the information she had marked on her country map had come from our tweets, being used to plan the humanitarian response for the country. It's at moments like that that you realize you can make a difference in 140 characters.

In your tweets, you have reported about directly confronting armed groups about abuses committed against civilians. Has it had some kind of effect on them?

Yes, I think it is fundamentally important to confront the armed groups doing the killings directly. You need to do so for several reasons. First of all, they need to know that we are monitoring their crimes, and that they could one day be held accountable for their actions – this does have a deterrent effect. Second, they also need to understand what we are doing in the country.  That we are there to protect all civilians from people trying to hurt them, including the civilians in whose name they claim to fight. We pull no punches at these meetings and make things very clear, but normally they treat us with a lot of respect and deference because they know what we have done for their communities. Ruthless Seleka fighters respect us and thank us for the work we have done to protect Muslims and know we genuinely care about the Muslim communities. Third, we have to confront them because sometimes we do save lives immediately. In 2007 I confronted a rebel leader in CAR about his use of child soldiers. He was so worried about being eventually prosecuted that he didn't sleep all night and tracked us down the next day and asked us to help in demobilizing the kids he had forced to take up weapons.

Lastly, we also learn a lot about the motivations of those doing the killing during such meetings. In a meeting just last week, an anti-balaka leader in Bohong told me it was really difficult for him to accept that Muslims remained in his town.  He informed us that the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels had burned down all the non-Muslim homes, forcing many to live out in the open while Muslims still had adequate shelter. That unknown fact was clearly a great trigger in the local tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, so I immediately communicated with the humanitarian community to deliver emergency tarps to Bohong as quickly as possible so non-Muslims could rebuild their roofs. You only learn such facts if you talk to people, including rebel leaders.

You have also taken pictures of perpetrators of human rights abuses? Do you think they can be used for eventual prosecution and evidence in to perpetrators accountable?

I normally don't post too many pictures of perpetrators on social media, but I do take pictures of perpetrators and their crimes for evidentiary purposes. I have testified at war crimes trials before, and the pictures were always important evidence. It is remarkable how perpetrators in CAR have committed the most extreme acts of violence, but are often not bothered at all about letting us film their crimes. In many other crises, I would have to take serious risks to take such images. But this is one of the impacts of the explosion of social media – in some places, people have become so used to being filmed, and filming themselves, that they don't realize anymore they are being filmed committing crimes. I exposed a rebel group in Libya who executed over 60 prisoners after capturing and killing Qaddafi. They had filmed themselves abusing the prisoners. I just had to match the men in the video with the pictures of the executed bodies I found at a nearby hotel, and we knew who was responsible.

Finally, what can your followers do to help raise awareness and put pressure on leaders to finally send more peacekeepers to CAR?

This campaign only works if my followers help us keep up the pressure by retweeting our information, and by urging others to follow me and Human Rights Watch on Twitter. Our social media work won't make a big difference if nobody retweeted our information – that is what social media is all about, getting the word out and building up pressure. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the US National Security Advisor Anthony Lake told our Rwanda expert Alison Des Forges that he had one piece of advice for her: “Shout louder”. What he meant is that the only way human rights groups could force governments to act to stop the genocide was to mobilize public pressure. That is exactly what we are still doing today, shouting louder.