Episode 1 - Introducing the work of Human Rights Watch (HRW)
In our very first episode, we introduce you to Ms. Liz Evenson, International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch, or HRW and we talk about her role. In the second episode, we’ll focus on her recommendations for improving access to justice, especially at and via the International Criminal Court, or the ICC.
For more info on Liz Evenson go to: https://www.hrw.org/about/people/elizabeth-evenson
Episode 1 – Liz Evenson – HRW – Part 1
[00:00:00] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access! In this podcast series we talk to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics and human rights advocates, and many more. We explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all.
[00:00:21] I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access and over the next two episodes, I speak with Liz Evenson. She is the International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch, or HRW. In this first episode, we focus on introducing Liz and her role at HRW. In the second episode, we’ll focus on her recommendations for improving access to justice, especially at and via the International Criminal Court, or the ICC.
[00:00:50] Hope you enjoy the conversation.
[00:00:57] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Can you start us off please by telling us a bit about you and your background? How did you come to join the human rights?
[00:01:08] Liz Evenson: Thank you so much and thanks for having me on your podcast! So, I’m a lawyer by training, I went to law school in the US and I also did a Master’s in European human rights law in England and I got interested in human rights when I was at university. I think I’d always been interested in issues of social justice, but it was really at university that for the first time as an undergraduate that I discovered this whole language of human rights, both the philosophy of it, the history of the different movements, the fact that there’s a whole system of international law to protect human rights. I didn’t know any of that until I rocked up as a pretty naive 19 year old in the university class.
[00:01:55] But it really just spoke to me. It felt like this is a vocabulary that matches the things that I value and believe and is a vocabulary that can help me be part of remaking the world or being part of some change processes. And so I followed that interest through my law studies and then I actually ended up at Human Rights Watch through a great program that Human Rights Watch has, which is a fellowship for early career law graduates and in fact I got a fellowship that was specific to my law school, donated by someone quite special.
[00:02:30] So I actually entered Human Rights Watch on a one year fellow, basically a traineeship for human rights documentation and reporting and came then in contact with colleagues who were working on international justice issues and got a position after my fellowship and I’ve been with Human Rights Watch ever since, which is in total now some 16 years.
[00:02:53] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Okay, that’s pretty cool! Thank you for sharing that pathway with us! But we are going to focus mainly on what you currently do at Human Rights Watch. So what is it that you do? How would you explain it to someone who maybe isn’t particularly familiar with HRW?
[00:03:11] Liz Evenson: Well, the simplest way to explain it, I think, is that I’m part of a team that champions justice for victims of serious international crimes. And putting that into the context of what Human Rights Watch does many of my colleagues at Human Rights Watch are the ones who are going out there and trying to get to the truth of what’s happened when it comes to human rights violations: interviewing survivors, interviewing witnesses, going to governments, asking, you know, what happened or going to others who might be responsible for these violations. And I should say on Human Rights Watch we work on the whole spectrum of human rights issues: social rights, economic rights, civil political rights, not only the kinds of human rights violations that might rise to a level of serious international crimes, but our work comes in basically as the other side of the coin.
[00:04:00] So our colleagues are documenting and making public and exposing human rights violations that could amount to crimes under international law, war crimes, crimes against humanity, sometimes even genocide. And then we come in as the other side of the coin and try to figure out, okay, what strategies could be put in place to hold those, who are responsible for what turn out to be international crimes, to account through individual criminal responsibility, through courts of law.
[00:04:30] What kind of strategies do we need? How could we get there? How do we make those processes as victim and survivor centered as possible? So we are the other side of, once we have this reporting on these potential crimes, how can we then try to advance towards justice? And I say really advanced towards justice because justice is a very, very long game – it can take decades, it can also not ever materialize. So we are trying to champion justice as the end goal and trying to accompany the processes as we go along.
[00:05:05] Dr. Miranda Melcher: I like that. It’s helpful to put into the context of HRW’s work because I think often the on the ground tracking and documenting what’s happening might be more visible but that’s obviously part of what needs to be done, but stage two, what it sounds like you do is: okay, we know what happened, now what? How do we make sure that, that’s not the end of the story? So obviously very important work, but what does that look like day to day?
[00:05:30] Liz Evenson: Well, every day is really varied. That’s one of the things that I like so much about this job. I’ve just recently taken a new position as the leader of our international justice team. I previously was on the team for many, many years and I was focused really closely on the International Criminal Court.
[00:05:47] But in that job as in my new role every day is a bit different. It can look like conversations with colleagues, understanding, okay, we wanna advance something, how are we gonna get there? Can it be helpful to do strategizing? It could be reviewing documents that we’re putting out publicly, statements, press releases.
[00:06:07] It can be having meetings, phone calls in the last couple of years, mostly Zoom calls or other remote means with other NGO colleagues on a common strategy with the people we’re trying to convince to do things – so government representatives, could be court officials as well. It’s a lot of talking.
[00:06:28] When I was working from home, when I had a friend visiting a couple of years ago who’s a medical doctor, and after kind of listening to me work all day, she said, so like, when do you work? You just seem to be on the phone all day. And I was like, well, that is kind of, that’s how we make change.
[00:06:44] It’s through conversations, you know, as much as anything else, getting information that we need to make the best recommendations we can about what a justice process could look like here, what political will is necessary to get states to agree to do something that would support justice and then trying to popularize that through more conversations and public materials. So it’s really quite varied and every day is a mix of different things. One thing that we’re not doing is going into court ourselves. So I describe what we do really more as policy research.
[00:07:18] So that side of the international justice system, you know, what kinds of justice mechanisms are available, are any available? Oftentimes they’re not. So how do we start to build up towards calling attention even to the fact that justice is needed. And then taking those recommendations out there and doing advocacy and trying to create change.
[00:07:39] But, we’re not representing clients. We’re not in court. We’re not the prosecutors ourselves.
[00:07:44] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So that actually really helpfully kind of brings me to my next question, which is obviously you’re not in court, but you’re doing a whole lot to try and create or popularize or figure out ways for justice. And you’re also not a state, you’re not an international government organization. So how does that relationship, for example, with the International Criminal Court, with the ICC, how does that work? I imagine there must be benefits, but there’s probably also some challenges of this kind of position. Can you tell us a bit about that?
[00:08:14] Liz Evenson: Yeah, absolutely! So oftentimes we are trying to persuade government actors to do something. And I think that’s like maybe what you think of as classical human rights advocacy. We want to get a resolution passed in the Human Rights Council mandating a commission of inquiry or fact finding mechanism.
[00:08:33] And so we would be interacting with state representatives around that issue. But it’s true that in our work on international justice, at some level, the judicial authorities themselves are also the people we’re seeking to influence, but we’re seeking to influence them in a way that is fully, fully mindful and respectful of the fact that they are judicial authorities.
[00:08:56] So there’s an independence there that we’re also trying to protect. And in fact oftentimes our message to governments is, you need to stand up, you need to protect these institutions. They’re being sort of undermined by interests that are opposed to accountability. So this is why it’s really important to hear you say from the floor of the UN General Assembly, or the Security Council that you respect the independent decisions of the prosecutor and the judges.
[00:09:22] And want something like the International Criminal Court to work in a way that’s consistent with its mandate. So we have to always keep that in mind. And so I wouldn’t call what we do in terms of our engagement with judicial authorities, whether that’s the International Criminal Court or whether it might be lawmakers in a particular country that are, you know, maybe improving their laws to facilitate these kinds of prosecutions nationally.
[00:09:47] With the lawmakers and government representatives it’s one thing, but with judicial mechanisms like International Criminal Court, we’re not trying to impinge on their independence, in fact if anything, we’re doing a lot of work to make sure that independence is protected. But we are making policy recommendations, so not about the outcome of a particular case, or the innocence or guilt of a particular person, but issues like, so how should the prosecutor think about which cases to select? What are the different principles or guidelines?
[00:10:17] What does it mean for the ICC to do its work in a way that leaves a lasting legacy that has impact for victims and affected communities? How does that goal translate into how you make decisions about cases? All the way on down through how you have a presence in those communities as the ICC in order to make sure that justice is not only done, but also seen to be done.
[00:10:40] How do you forward plan for a time when the International Criminal Court’s mandate might come to an end, but there’s still gonna be a need for additional accountability processes, support for victims, reparations, proceedings, witness protection. So it’s in that area of kind of policy research and policy recommendations that we might be saying, oftentimes publicly, here are recommendations to the International Criminal Court.
[00:11:05] And we also engage in a dialogue with other NGOs through a network called the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which really brings together the whole global international justice movement to have these kinds of conversations with court officials. So I think it’s important that something like the International Criminal Court, but I would say really any prosecuting authority, any judicial authority dealing with these kinds of crimes needs to have some kind of connection and outreach to NGOs.
[00:11:35] It’s the NGOs that are representing the constituencies here. They’re the kind of the stand in, for lack of a better word, for the global constituency, for doing justice for these kinds of crimes. And so in order for these processes to ultimately have legitimacy, they have to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people and one of the proxies we have for that would be the NGO communities, particularly those NGOs that are really working hand in hand with victims and survivor communities.
[00:12:06] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So that’s a whole lot of very cool, very nerdy things. I’m sure we can get in lots of nerdy detail about, the number of things you’ve reeled off that you work on, which is brilliant. So thank you for giving us that overview. This might be like choosing your favorite child. Hopefully not. But are there maybe some current or upcoming projects in particular that you maybe want to highlight for us?
[00:12:31] Liz Evenson: Well, this is gonna be kind of a nerdy answer, but it’s also the truth. I’m not sure when this podcast will air, but, next week, at the beginning of December, is the annual meeting of all of the governments that belong to the International Criminal Court. It’s called the Assembly of States Parties and it takes place over five, six days, sometimes in the Hague, sometimes in New York at UN Headquarters. This year it’s in the Hague. And I’m really looking forward to this for a couple of reasons. One, you know, it’s a place where really important work gets done, by states on behalf of justice.
[00:13:05] I’m sure your listeners will know that something like International Criminal Court, but again, any sort of justice process for these serious international crimes depends so much on the willingness of governments to support those processes, to protect them from obstruction, to put resources behind them. And so this is a platform where states parties will be doing some really specific things like setting the court’s budget or passing resolutions, but taken together, it’s really a moment to put the spotlight on the importance that they attach to victims having access to justice for serious international crimes.
[00:13:41] So I’m looking forward to the culmination of a lot of work that my colleagues and I do all year round to urge states to make the most of this moment. But the other reason I’m really looking forward to it is because it is really a singular gathering of the international justice movement. Even though it’s a meeting of ICC member governments, lots and lots of other justice topics will get discussed during side-events and corridor discussions. And particularly the last few years when in person gatherings have been limited for many, this will be my first time back at a Assembly of State’s party session in person since 2019.
[00:14:18] So I’m just looking forward to that community coming together and finding out what’s going on for people, what their priorities are and how these issues look, you know, from wherever they might be positioned in the world.
[00:14:29] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Wonderful. Well, that’s exciting to have that coming up so soon. Hope it is kind of all the things that you’re hoping for. Might there be something, maybe one more in like, I don’t know, the first half of 2023 that particularly comes to mind?
[00:14:53] Liz Evenson: Well, I think it’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s been following developments in international justice over the past year, that what’s happening in Ukraine has really drawn, sort of unprecedented in some ways, attention to the necessity of having justice for serious international crimes.
[00:15:11] And trying to understand what are all the different mechanisms that have now been activated and what are nonetheless, the barriers that might be in the way. So how to take this very strong, almost immediate impulse to talk about justice and to talk about the need for justice for what’s happening in Ukraine and make sure that it actually gets translated.
[00:15:34] Now, that’s not something that’s gonna be resolved in the first and half of 2023, but I think we’re gonna continue to see that response maturing and will give us an opportunity to have a look and see how is this all fitting together? Are there lessons that can be brought in from previous situations?
[00:15:49] Are there lessons that can be taken forward into other situations? And how do we take this interest, and kind of the spotlight that unfortunately has been put on the necessity of justice given what’s taking place, how can we take that spotlight and talk about what to do in other situations that also like Ukraine, where the delivery of justice is important and so essential. So that’s, I think, one of the key issues with us at the moment and it’ll be with us for quite some time.
[00:16:22] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you, Liz, for sharing your story with us and giving us insight into the Human Rights Watch and the work you do with the organization. In our next episode, we’ll delve more into how to improve access to justice globally with Liz. Stay tuned!