With the proliferation of new technologies the world has seen in recent years, human rights activists are bestowed with an array of new and innovative tools to aid them in their efforts to hold violators accountable.
Keene State College’s Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club, Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies sponsored a presentation by Amnesty International Advocate Kathryn R. Striffolino in the Mountain View Room of the student center Monday, Feb. 11.
Striffolino, who attended Keene High School before studying Political Science and International Affairs at University of New Hampshire, currently serves on Amnesty International’s Crisis Prevention and Response Unit in Washington, D.C.
Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, was started in 1961 by lawyer Peter Benenson, who wrote a piece titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer newspaper, urging readers to write letters on behalf of two Portuguese students who were jailed for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. The article was reprinted in newspapers all over the world, a letter writing campaign titled “Appeal for Amnesty 1961” arose with support in over a dozen countries and Amnesty International was born.
Over a half century later, Amnesty is operating on a global scale with the mission statement to investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilize the public, and work to protect people wherever truth justice and freedom are denied.
Striffolino, who has been with Amnesty for the past five years, briefed the Keene State College students and faculty on the uses she and her organization have been able to find for today’s technology in the context of human rights.
“The possibilities are quite limitless at this point,” she said. Striffolino’s team has extensively used satellite imagery in monitoring everything from armed conflict situations to housing rights violations and illegal evictions.
In 2008 Amnesty launched the “Eyes on Darfur Project,” which using geospatial technologies allowed them to document particular human rights violations with hard evidence from space. Striffolino said they weren’t able to get much information about what was going on inside Darfur from traditional means, like people on the ground, because the government of Sudan didn’t want them there and the region’s geography was both massive and extremely difficult to trudge through. This prevented Amnesty from gaining enough information to launch advocacy campaigns.
According to Striffolino, Amnesty collaborated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science with a grant from the Save Darfur Coalition, and used satellite imagery to identify 12 sites that were at high risk of attack. From there they created a regularly updated interactive platform to work as a “global neighborhood watch,” as she put it. The website also offered users links to send messages directly to the government of Sudan to inform them that people were well aware of what they were doing.
Striffolino said Amnesty performed an impact assessment of the project and determined the website had a deterrent effect on attacks to those particular communities. “We were able to achieve I would say a measurable amount of human rights impact using these types of technologies without having unfettered physical access to the ground,” Striffolino said. “I would say this site and this project was really a game changer for the global human rights community.”
Her team is currently using satellite technology to monitor and document abuses by the Assad Regime in Syria. “We really feel like as a part of our duty it’s our job to be telling the stories of those most affected by some of the most egregious crimes,” Striffolino said.
Holocaust and Genocide Studies Professor Dr. James E. Waller said with these technologies the world can no longer use a lack of information as an excuse for inaction. “So now the issue is going to be can we take that information and translate it into action,” Waller said.
Although most of Striffolino’s work is technology oriented, she admitted the newest tools aren’t always the most effective ones. Late last year Amnesty heavily relied upon boots on the ground information gathering in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), where the M23, an armed rebel group, was attacking villages. She said the area was prone to thunderstorms and resulted in about 90 percent of the images they received from satellites being obscured by clouds. However their field team was able to physically gain access to most areas and ended up gathering a lot of rich documentation which helped them accurately tell the stories of the refugees.
Striffolino said the types of data they’re collecting have been used in environmental court cases for years, but are now just starting to be utilized in human rights cases as well. She said Amnesty and other non-governmental organizations are training prosecutors on how to involve this type of evidence, particularly in international court.
Striffolino said she wasn’t fully exposed to the work of Amnesty until she was looking for internships and was accepted by the organization fresh out of UNH.
“That’s why I really want to get some momentum going for student groups both at Keene State [College] and at UNH in the next few months because I feel like so many students would be interested in the types of issues Amnesty campaigns for, and there’s plenty of action opportunities for them as well,” she said.
Waller said he plans to meet with two or three students in the coming days who are interested in starting an Amnesty International chapter at KSC. He said the Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club “has kind of stretched itself to try and cover a lot of human rights issues,” and if there were an Amnesty club as well, the Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club could refocus its attention on raising awareness on cases of genocide.
Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club Treasurer Molly Palmer said the group will continue to bring events like Striffolino’s presentation to KSC, and plans to hold a Day of Silence for the people of Uganda sometime in April.
Eric Walker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org