“We were breaking new ground”

Hans Thoolen talks about the excitement of founding HURIDOCS, why the human rights community nowadays resembles a church with too many priests (and too few believers) and what made Latin American human rights defenders embrace technology before everyone else. Looking back at decades of involvement in human rights work, he also sketches out his idea of a multimedia platform that gives human rights defenders the space to inspire others.

What was the most exciting idea about founding HURIDOCS?
It started for me and the others at this conference in 1979 near Paris. During this conference we sensed there was space for better cooperation among NGOs, especially with new technology. Mind you: this was 1979, well before the internet, and information technology was hardly used. Our idea was to somewhere, somehow seek some level of agreement among NGOs – or at least to create the tools with which working together would be possible in the future.

Hans Thoolen (second from right) at the Quito conference in Spring 1982, the most important conference before HURIDOCS was officially founded a few months later.

How did you move on from there?
That idea survived the meeting and there was some money left over from the Ford Foundation and that was used to have informal consultations. So for a few years, Martin Ennals, who had just stepped down as secretary general of Amnesty International, Friederike Knabe, Laurie Wiseberg, Bjorn Stormorken and myself (working for the International Commission of Jurists) were the people who worked on the follow-up. We had meetings in London, Brussels, Oslo and Geneva and we were asking NGOs what they thought of the potential of information technology and testing out ideas on information exchange.

That slowly lead to the first big conference, in Quito, Ecuador, in 1982, partly because the Latinos had taken to the use of technology well before the West – in the NGO world, not in the business world, of course. This maybe was surprising, but when you thought about it, not that strange.

Why not? And how did this lead to the founding of HURIDOCS?
In those days, the NGOs in Latin America worked under a high degree of oppression by government, so they had an interest in getting information out quickly to the outside world. They also had an interest in creating electronic files that could easily be copied and kept safe. An NGO like CELS in Argentina had its offices raided several times and the police took all the computers and files. So, normally this would have been the end, but they could restore easily their files on disappearances thanks to the use of technology. Email was employed by the Latin American community quickly, as it was cheap and alternatives were less available.

The Latinos were the first regional group to embrace the idea of a worldwide HURIDOCS-network in May 1982. Then a few months later we did the same thing in Strasbourg. I was mostly the organiser of these meetings because I was in between jobs (on the dole in Geneva!) and had some time on my hands. In Strasbourg we agreed on a real structure, on a constitution, etc. That was the formal birth of HURIDOCS. So you could say that we were pregnant for three years before giving birth.

What was it that has driven you?
Probably two things. The first was an extremely firm belief – that I still have today – that when it comes to information the human rights movement should be ‘playing a home match’. Information and documentation are the only weapons of human rights NGOs – so we better make sure we’re damn good at it, and better than the others. The best human rights NGOs can do, is to provide high-quality, reliable and consistent information to influence public opinion. Obviously, if information is our ‘home match’, we should excell in it. The ideas behind HURIDOCS had the goal to make the human rights movement stronger in information handling.

Hans in 2012, at home in Crete – still working for human rights.

The second was simply the quality of the people. I met people who had different backgrounds, but similar convictions and turned out to be very interesting people with a lot of complementary skills and knowledge. And most of them became good friends, especially Martin Ennals for whom we later created the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, another ‘inter-agency’ effort like HURIDOCS.

How did your involvement affect your understanding of information management for human rights work?
From 1982 to 1986. I was director of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights in Utrecht and we started to use computers in our research and documentation work. The institute housed also the one-person Secretariat of HURIDOCS.

In August 1986 I went to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to set up the new and fully computerised Refugee Documentation Centre. There, my interest in human rights information and documentation became even more professional. In a sense, HURIDOCS became a natural, logical extension of my daily work. We created a specialised sub-network for refugee documentation called IRENE.

Already then we thought that information technology should cover also non-written documents, including voice and images, which are crucial to the cause of human rights and refugees alike. This is why I became convinced that the human rights movement should do a lot more with images. Six years ago (2006) I started another organisation, True Heroes, films for human rights defenders, exactly because I felt we should do more to help human rights defenders with images.

Do you feel that while technology is now more widely embraced that the processes to make it work could be better? Is it now more important to get the processes right, rather than to get the technology right? And has that been different in the past?
What I do fear is that the wider availability of information technology has not necessarily led to a better understanding or more action. But then, maybe it was always an illusion. When we couldn’t easily reach people in the old days, we could live with the illusion that if people only knew, if people knew that somebody was being tortured, then there would be action. Now that we can and do reach the whole world, we no longer have this excuse. So I am disappointed sometimes by the lack of response or the lack of action. But perhaps that was to be expected: for more action or more response, you need to do more than what we are doing.

A HURIDOCS meeting in Montevideo, 1990.

Communication technology in itself, and especially social media that depend on it, do not always lead to a stronger outreach. By clicking a button people get the false idea that they have done something substantive. Of course, it works sometimes, e.g. when Avaaz are able to say they got a million signatures. That impresses. But we should not get carried away, because it is becoming relatively easy to get one million people to click. It won’t be long until one million has to be ten million to get the same impact. There is a danger of inflation.

Do you feel something has changed within the human rights community when it comes to embracing information technology?
I will try to answer this question more in general, not limited to information technology although it plays a role in the process of professionalisation that has been going on over the last 20 years. This development has its advantages, no doubt. I meet e.g. a lot of young human rights people, who are a lot better equipped, educationally speaking, than I was; who have studied human rights law at university level; who have done four, five internships; speak four languages fluently, etc. The skills level has certainly increased. The problem I see is that the number of professionals should somehow be a reflection of the number of people that are active in human rights. In other words, I think that the human rights movement is looking more and more like a church with many priests and not so many believers. A church full of people who pray and one priest who collects money is more sustainable than a church with few believers and a lot of priests all collecting money. The result is, of course, that a tremendous amount of resources are spent on fundraising.

This professionalisation is also linked to the process of fragmentation that has characterised the human rights movement in the last decades. The old saying “it is better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of an ox” applies even more when livelihood and careers depend on it. This may help to explain the sometimes bewildering number of organisations, campaigns which – certainly to outsiders – must look like overlap, replication, and inefficient use of scarce resources. On the other hand, specialisation and professionalisation are the normal by-product of a growing sector, and that the human rights movement certainly has been.

The HURIDOCS conference in Crete in 1992, where Hans Thoolen’s idea to create ‘Human Rights On-line’ was not adopted. Hans still enjoyed the place and lives on Crete today.

After speaking about more general developments, let’s move back to your relationship with HURIDOCS. What was the best time you had with HURIDOCS?
That must have been after the Rome meeting in 1986, where there was basically a ‘coup d’état’ to get rid off the cumbersome non-functioning international Board. Then we created the Continuation Committee of only three-four people. That period was for me the most rewarding, the most interesting, the most productive. Not just because we had a small committee without office politics, but because we could go focus on substance and steering the work of dedicated individuals in a large number of organisations. The real work was done by thematic and regional task forces. The creation of the standard formats, controlled vocabulary etc was all done in those years. It was very interesting, we were breaking new ground.

And the worst?
I will not conceal that I was indeed very disappointed in Crete in 1992. It was not the reason I resigned, that was already agreed well in advance. I was disappointed that HURIDOCS at that moment – as an international movement – was not allowed to create “Human Rights On-line”, a kind of global portal which would have been very timely in view of the explosive development of the internet that was starting. HURIDOCS would have had a much easier task, if that proposal would have been accepted at that time, to provide access to quality information. It would perhaps be interesting to look again at that document to see what is still relevant today. (Read the full paper Human rights online : the next stage in the HURIDOCS network?)

Why are organisations like HURIDOCS important for the human rights community today?
Because cooperation among NGOs – however difficult because we all compete for funding and attention – is extremely important. I don’t see anybody else who could steer this cooperation in the area of information and documentation like HURIDOCS could. The problem of course remains to see and explain what HURIDOCS can do that others cannot do, to reformulate its mission.

There we come back to what was said before. HURIDOCS should still make sure that information is easier exchanged. It should also continue to assist others, especially start-ups, with lessons learnt. The third thing is to provide access to information that cannot be easily obtained in any other way, for example comparative human rights case law. The Council of Europe has a very elaborate and decent system, but the regional other systems are much less easily accessible, let alone national case law. The idea to have a legal database, where information from a large number of different providers can be put together, is extremely interesting but also resource intensive as I learned when setting up the legal databases on refugees for UNHCR.

Today, somebody who does a doctoral thesis on e.g. freedom of religion will work through hundreds of cases in the different national, regional and international systems. And that person has the time and energy to find it. But do we all have to do a doctoral thesis to find the most relevant, up-to-date case law on freedom of religion? Apparently, that is still the case.

If you had unlimited time and resources, what would be the one project you would do in the future?
For me human rights defenders are the key actors, meaning devoted individuals who work for human rights in their own country. They are much more credible than international or transnational actors. Moreover, if human right work is not done by the people in their own country a human rights culture will never come about. Therefore they deserve protection and all our support.

I think that we should have good and up-to-date information on the most outstanding human rights defenders easily accessible on the internet, a kind of gallery of prominent human rights defenders. These people are an example and inspiration for others. However, nowadays it should be mostly a visual platform, showing in film images what they do and why they do it. This Gallery – especially when also available on mobile devices – can hope to reach out to future audiences.

If you want to hear from Hans more often, you may want to have a peek at his blog or follow him on Twitter. Want to know more about HURIDOCS early days? Read Hans’ highly interesting “A biased history of HURIDOCS” published at the time of our twentieth anniversary in 2002!

This is the first part in a series of interviews with people, who worked for and with HURIDOCS in the past three decades of our existence. In these interviews, we want to look back at what has been achieved, but also stir discussions of where the human rights and NGO community should be going. Get in touch, if you have questions that you want to discuss or ideas craving for attention. Also stay tuned for the interviews to come!

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  1. A global approach to human rights case law | HURIDOCS - 17 December, 2012

    [...] the cases on freedom of religion, you will probably have to do a doctorate, as HURIDOCS Co-founder Hans Thoolen in a recent interview [...]

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