“Data collection” and “monitoring”: what does it mean to human rights defenders?

This post is based on a speech I delivered on behalf of ILGA-Europe in June 2013 in Belgrade (Serbia), at a Regional Workshop on the Rights of LGBTI People in EU candidate countries, at the invitation of the European Commission.

Some definitions

There would be many possible definitions of what “data collection” is. In fact, one can collect all types of information on all possible subjects. 

In the present context, we can base our reasoning on a simple definition: human rights activists systematically and consistently collect information on certain types of events, of processes (e.g. judicial, prosecution, political) or of incidents. For example, part of my work consists in systematically and consistently collecting data on discrimination or hate crime incidents.

“Monitoring” is also a potentially broad concept.

For human rights activists, I would identify two types of actions that can be called monitoring. On the first hand, one can follow up on one (or a certain number of) given event(s), process(es) or incident(s). In the case of discrimination or hate crime, it could be following the investigation, the court proceedings, etc. On the other hand, monitoring can also consist in the analysis of the data collected and of the trends and evolutions. In this case, monitoring can be understood as an attempt to build an interpretation frame of a specific phenomenon, and to create the conditions of the definition of a policy strategy in response.

Who undertakes activities such as data collection and monitoring in the area of human rights?

Mainly two types of actors. The first one belongs to the sphere of the so-called civil society (NGOs), where organised groups need to collect evidence of certain problems to succeed in putting certain issues on the political agenda. The other type of actor is public authorities, which need to look into facts and trends in order to define and adopt policies in areas that have already been defined as priorities.

We will see that it is a big challenge for both actors to develop the capacities to effectively collect and monitor data on human rights. We will also see that, while the actions undertaken by these two types of actors ideally are complementary, it is in fact crucial that they remain independent one from the other.

State of play in Europe, challenges and difficulties

Let’s stick to the example of hate crimes. In this area, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provides a useful indicator, by publishing anannual report on hate crimes, which is based on both sources of information (NGOs and participating States’ authorities). Several remarks can be made:

  • In many countries, there is no data reported at all;
  • In many other countries, only a very limited number of incidents is reported;
  • The highest figures come from the countries… where NGOs (including community NGOs) are well-developed and where the States have prioritised action to combat this type of incidents (the highest figure comes with the UK with an average of 5000 reported homophobic and transphobic incidents a year, as well as close to 50000 racist incidents).

In addition, existing research suggests that even where a lot of incidents are already reported, the figures recorded are very far from the actual number of incidents. To go further with the UK’s example, the British Crime Survey (commissioned by the authorities too) suggests that a vast majority of the actual incidents are not reported and hence not included in the above mentioned statistics. This is what some people call the “black (or grey) numbers”.

My point here is that what activists and decision-makers see of this pervasive social situation/human rights violation is no more than the tip of the iceberg.

An illustration: In the case of homophobic and transphobic incidents, the recent LGBT Survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) indicates that 26% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have been attacked or threatened with violence over the last 5 years (and up to 35% for trans people, with 28% of the victims having been attacked more than 3 times!). In the same survey and talking about the last actual physical attack or threat of attack suffered, 80% of the respondents said they had not reported it to the police, and a similar percentage did also not report to any other organisation (including NGOs and victims support organisations).

Why is it so? 59% of victims of discrimination believed that reporting would not change anything. 44% said it was because “it happens all the time”. 37% were afraid of coming out. 37% thought they would not be taken seriously. 30% simply didn’t know how and where they could report. And 15% were afraid of intimidation by the perpetrators.

Quite telling about the cultural changes to be achieved for victims of intolerance to feel more at ease in society than the intolerants!

What can civil society organisations do?

What can NGOs do to stimulate change on those fronts?

Obviously, they need to collect evidence to make the case that the problem does exist. The higher the figures, the better. But to succeed in putting an issue on the political agenda, it is often necessary to also give it a face, and to go qualitative. Being able to describe in details one given case or story (possibly with the victim speaking out, in the case of hate crime or discrimination) can be a trigger. To achieve such results, NGOs ideally need to also develop their capacity to assist and support the people involved in the case (e.g. the victims of an attack). Or at least to be able to guide and help them find such assistance and support. If that does not happen, NGOs can still communicate to explain that the aim of raising awareness about the problem is strong enough a motivation to report. And this is true in theory. But in practice, for an individual victim of the problem, what is the motivation if there is no particular assistance to be found?

Examples of what can be done to increase NGOs’ potential.

In my current work with ILGA-Europe, I contribute to the development and dissemination of a unified methodology for reporting hate related incidents (mainly hate crimes, but also to some extent hate speech and discrimination). This methodology includes definitions of all the concepts that monitors need to be using consistently (definition of the types of incidents, bias indicators used as evidence of the intolerant motivation of the incident, etc.), and a questionnaire to be answered by victims of witnesses. In 2013, 12 national NGOs are part of a pilot project aiming at producing comparable data at European level. We also support their efforts to engage in advocacy actions on the basis of the data collected: awareness raising campaigning, establishment of contacts with allies, support services or competent authorities... The tools devised in this frame would then be available to the rest of ILGA-Europe’s membership.

Others NGO-led projects I know of include monitoring specifically discriminations, or assisting local NGOs in the development of work with different types of victims support services or law enforcement authorities (where possible…).

In any case, such work, even where it can inspire action by public authorities, has to remain independent. Even where public authorities are perfectly well-intentioned, this independence is a condition for NGOs to be able to flag new emerging problems (this is not to say that public support is not welcome, though).

What should governments and State administrations do?

In an ideal world, governments should at least spend some energy on raising awareness about their citizens’ rights, so that they know what type of protection or redress they are supposed to benefit from. In practice, it of course depends on how developed these rights are in law and in fact!

Pragmatically, governments should be expected to at least train their civil servants to receive reports and complaints, and to deliver the services they are required to deliver in law. Going back to the “simple” example of hate crimes, and according to EU legal standards (the Directive on the Rights of Victims adopted in 2012), this would already include training police forces and prosecution services to identify victims of such crimes and to deal with them appropriately, ensuring that the assistance of specialised victims support services can be provided, and applying when need be certain protection measures during the investigation and the court proceedings (e.g. protection of privacy, no unnecessary mention of personal circumstances/characteristics).

In the long term, the core public policy challenge (which is also a social challenge and a cultural challenge) is to build trust within all potentially interested communities, working hands in hands with NGOs emanating from them and leaving room for all individuals to be heard and to feel confident enough.

This means that resources have to be mobilised, and that laws in the books will not suffice. In short, this means political will. And political will is often lacking, may it be in the case of LGBTI people’s rights or in many other instances (just think of European Roma or migrant communities, even in countries which are supposed to have serious equality legislations…).

Joël Le Déroff