A major part of human rights work is the production of written reports. The report is usually seen as a means to an end. Information is collected, checked, standardized, and disseminated as part of a wider strategy to prevent violations and implement universal standards. Reporting also may become an end in itself: The belief that even without results there is an absolute duty to convey the truth, to bear witness.
There are many types of human rights reports. The major international nongovernmental organizations (such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) produce regular and detailed book-length reports. These are the equivalent of social science research projects, giving a comprehensive account of a particular country’s current human rights record. Then there are the simplest reports — legal or journalistic, rather than social scientific — giving information only on a single case or problem. Other variants include entries in annual world-wide atlases of human rights violations, press releases, regular documentation by regional and national organizations, results of fact-finding missions, publications of academic human rights centers, and official documents from intergovernmental organizations within the UN orbit.
These reports have generated an extraordinary volume of information over the last twenty-five years. This coverage is obviously neither completely comprehensive nor evenly distributed. There are clear reasons for this — both rational (human rights problems are objectively worse in some countries than in others) and contingent (some countries are closed to outside scrutiny, more obscure and less politically interesting to international, especially US-based, organizations). Some countries are more highly scrutinized than others, especially those with a combination of visible violations and open access to media and human rights observers.
Because of such contingencies in reporting, it would be impossible to claim that the human rights problem is “objectively” constructed, in the sense of there being an exact correspondence between the severity, duration, and extent of violations and the amount of attention any particular country receives. For this reason, some government responses to international criticism are justified, even if usually disingenuous or a distraction from the issue: Yes, human rights organizations do report more about Israel than Syria.
Despite this selectivity, though, the cumulative picture produced by all human rights scrutiny is impressive. It would be difficult to find a country or issue which has not been the object of substantial attention. Despite occasional legendary cases of misreporting (such as the dubious incubator babies in Kuwait) and other less dramatic mistakes, this reporting is generally fair and reliable.
What happens to these reports when they are “released?” The resources that organizations devote to compiling all this information are not matched by attention to how reports are disseminated or what impact they might have on target audiences. Much information hardly gets off the shelves. Or it flows only within a closed circuit of other human rights organizations, governments, or intergovernmental bodies. When it does reach the wider public — either directly (through appeals, publicity, campaigns) or through the mass media — its effects remain unknown and unmonitored. Recent refinements in techniques of information collecting, standardized recording, and data-retrieval do not address this issue at all.
I have just completed an enquiry into how human rights information is communicated. Focusing on international organizations, my research considered three target audiences: (1) the official circuit of perpetrator and observer governments; (2) the mass media; and (3) direct appeals to the general public. This article deals only with the first audience — reactions by perpetrator governments. These reactions arise in three settings: (1) within their own country in response to criticism from domestic organizations; (2) within their country in response to international organizations; and (3) in the international arena in response to international organizations. This article concentrates on this third arena.
Perpetrator governments, however, when framing their replies to allegations by human rights organizations have to address other audiences as well — domestic public opinion and media, international public opinion and media, allied or friendly governments, and international bodies. Official reactions, therefore, resonate far beyond the restricted channels of a government press release in response to a critical report. The vocabulary of official reactions draws from the acceptable pool of accounts available…