Waiting for the Guards – Amnesty International’s video on torture

Unsubscribe is Amnesty International’s new campaign against human rights abuses (by Western Governments including the US and UK) under the guise of the war against terror. 

The following video, featuring Jiva Parthipan as the prisoner, is shocking and one of the most compelling videos against HR abuses I have seen on the web. As the AI website notes,

Waiting for the Guards is not a normal film. What you are watching is a real person going through the excruciating pain of Stress Positions over a period of 6 hours. We decided that the only way to show the horror of this “enhanced interrogation procedure” used by the CIA and others was to show you the reality of it. There is no acting from the prisoner. He is in pain. Real pain. 

The video on YouTube alone has been viewed over 44,000 times. You should also not miss the story behind the production of the film.

I think AI, in depicting the sheer brutality of torture through this video, creates outrage against torture. This is no mean feat. Grabbing the attention of those who in a media rich world are bombarded with information on HR abuses is tremendously difficult. We normalise violence, and egregious HR abuses such as Abu Graib and Guatanamo are media stories for consumption in the morning en route to office, an RSS feed on our desktops or at night on evening news. 

AI’s video and the larger unsubscribe web campaign creates that sense of outrage that is necessary and vital to take actions against government’s that aid and abet torture. 

What I’m interested in is whether, over time, AI and other HR organisations have be more and more visceral in their depiction of torture to combat the inevitable erosion of interest and commitment to stop torture by those moved to action by this campaign. Put another way, over 44,000 people have watched Waiting for the Guards, but how many of them have signed up for AI’s campaign, participated in virally marketing it and raising awareness against torture? And while web campaigns have long tails, it’s also the case that they have a very limited active life – people move on, life goes on, attention is scattered, competing initiatives steal participants, social networks evolve and move on. 

To this end I wonder if AI has any statistics on just what impact unsubscribe has made in the policies of the governments to which the campaign is aimed at and those most at risk of torture the campaign intends to protect. Further down the line, it would be interesting to hear AI’s take on web media and HR campaigns conducted on the web. Far as I can gather, this film is not one that AI will show widely in terrestrial / cable TV networks around the world. In using the web as the primary source of information dissemination and activism, this campaign is accessible by those in the West, but not as easily by those without broadband access in other parts of the world.

Geo-location and human rights

“…future monitoring efforts should make sure that precise locations are recorded first time. So, here are two questions for our five or so readers: what’s working well on this issue in the real world; and, what’s the most practical way to manage information about electoral boundaries?”

Some thoughts of the cuff, as one avid reader of Paul Currion’s blog and to a post that poses the question above.

  • It’s not always possible, in fact rarely so that even today HR activists can get precise coordinates of a violation or incident. The accuracy of geo-location depends on anything from media reports to first or second hand accounts by witnesses to the violation.
  • Place names are a problem for any system that records geo-location in English alone. In Sri Lanka, while most major cities and town have standard and well recognised names in English, the smaller villages as well as IDP and refugee camps have no standard spelling in English. This raises the real challenge of multiple records dealing with the same incident, persons or place. (The HR system we developed for Sri Lanka works in the swabhasha and we are working on building semantic intelligence further into the system wherein it will flag records that it feels are duplicates).
  • Even with just place names, it’s possible to do visualisations that demonstrate patterns of HR violations amongst certain identity groups, in certain regions and in response to certain events or processes. These patterns, based on rough yet verified incidents, can prove very powerful instruments through which awareness and civil actions can be engendered and sustained to strengthen and proctect HR.
  • Current crop of GIS location devices are too conspicuous. They can’t be hidden easily and HR activists lugging them around in war zones is simply a non-starter.
  • Not always necessary to have precise place names. It’s a given that there have been more HR violations in cities in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka than, say, for any city in the South over the 25 years of conflict. You may need precise geo-location if you have more than circumstantial evidence to take a specific perpertrator to court locally or internationally, but for most purposes of HR advocacy, awareness raising and protection, just having information of HR violations over time at a provincial level is better than none at all.
  • Most of the really accurate geo-spatial datasets reside with government. If the government itself is a significant violator of HR, as is the case in Sri Lanka today, that pretty much means that these datasets are inaccessible for NGOs and civil society organisations working on HR protection. This means that they have to rely on what may be less acurrate publicly available datasets. With most donors unaware of the vital importance of supporting information services to back-stop HR advocacy, many NGOs can’t afford the significant costs associated with the licensing of commercially available GIS datasets. And with all sorts of varying ways of identifying the same or similar locations – from P-Codes to Post Codes, from old names to new names, from merged Provinces to de-merged Provinces and the entire relocation of towns and cities – what you really need are multiple layers (translucency) on all maps that indicate location data.
  • Again, place means different things at different times and in difference instances. For some cases, just knowing that an incident happened in whatever place suffices. In other cases, it is of vital important to know the exact location of the place where the incident occured.
  • Finally, as an aside, for myself and others engaged in HR strengthening through the use of technology, these are not just academic questions – they deal with real lives and a bloody reality. Some of our programmers, unused to the gruesome descriptions of a few real records they entered at the initial testing stages of our HR advocacy platform, had to take breaks from work to deal with their feelings. Our system was conceptualised, development and deployed to actively respond to a context where activists who use it are at high risk of losing their lives just for speaking out on HR abuses. We could have gone for the perfect solution or one that meaningfully helped them do their work and responded to urgent and vital needs in a manner robust enough to hold flagrant violators or HR accountable for their actions. Our choice was clear.