Our Story

HURIDOCS was born at a time when computers were barely used and human rights defenders struggled to organize their information. Three decades later, our organization has become a leader in its field through the development of innovative tools, methodology, and resources.

The HURIDOCS story began near Paris in 1979, when several key human rights organizations gathered to start talking about a new challenge: how to benefit from information and communication technologies that commercial companies and government agencies had developed?

The leaders of the NGOs decided to create a platform to answer this question – and that’s how HURIDOCS was born. The initiative’s first donor was The Ford Foundation. In 1982, the first conference took place in Quito, Ecuador, and the same year saw the founding assembly of HURIDOCS, in Strasbourg, led by Martin Ennals (1927–1991), a dedicated human rights activist who had been the first Secretary-General of Amnesty International.

The creation of HURIDOCS was the first opportunity to apply information science to human rights. In its first years, HURIDOCS worked on library documentation. Much needed to be done so grassroot organizations could understand how to classify and manage their documents. HURIDOCS also had to develop methodological tools and standards, as there was no terminology in place at the time for library science that applied to human rights.

A complex reality

Some years later, a network of NGOs interested in managing libraries had been established. However, groups based in the Global South had another question: how can organizations successfully document human rights violations? HURIDOCS’ experience led to a method we can summarize as “Who Did What to Whom”: reporting crimes by representing the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.

This system evolved in the next five years to better represent what happened, where it happened, the people involved, and the nature of the violation. In 2000, HURIDOCS’ work moved into a third phase: development of indicators to track violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

Martin Ennals

Martin Ennals

“The rapid increase of interest in human rights coincides with the rapid development of information technology. Unless a common and universal system of communication is evolved, valuable information will be wasted, existing international machinery will not function, and implementation will not be monitored.”

Martin Ennals,
HURIDOCS Founding President (1927-1991)

The problem of supply and demand

Despite being a specialist, HURIDOCS had a problem threatening its relevance for years: an inability to find the right balance between the tools, which were very complex, and the users, who needed solutions that would be easy to implement. Supply and demand were not meeting: in many countries, NGOs did not have the necessary skills or informatics capacity, and HURIDOCS was not adapting itself enough to their requests. As a result, HURIDOCS went through such a severe crisis that Bert Verstappen had to work alone for two years. The team – four people at that time, led by Daniel D’Esposito, then worked on a new approach: listening to problems and implementing one-to-one capacity-building with organisations directly, instead of focussing on standard trainings on methodologies and tools that involved diverse participants with very different needs.

A new start

This radical move proved successful. In 2011, HURIDOCS began a new project in Russia with the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which conducts research on nationalism and racism. Katherin Machalek started new projects in Armenia and Georgia, and Daniel D’Esposito did the same in Africa. In 2013, the Open Society Foundation, a long-term supporter of HURIDOCS, increased its funding, and in the following years the NGO developed its team and its tools and attracted a number of donors.

A unique expertise

HURIDOCS benefits today from the precious technical expertise of its software developers under the supervision of Jaume Cardona. HURIDOCS’ team comprises around 20 people living and working in Geneva, Berlin, Nairobi, Valencia, New York, Mallmö, and Jerusalem, who aim to make HURIDOCS the organisation to solve information management challenges of human rights organisations, be they related to document collections, services to victims, or tracking violations and legal proceedings.

See also “A biased history of HURIDOCS … as seen by one of the founders”, written by Hans Thoolen in 2002. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of HURIDOCS, Judith Dueck and Hans Thoolen shared anecdotes, reflected on the impact of HURIDOCS and what motivated their deep involvement.

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