Justice Rapid Response, like most organizations, has had to adopt alternative methods of working as the coronavirus pandemic restricted travel for experts on its roster. But for many Justice Rapid Response experts, as well as their requesting entities, working from home – or working ‘remotely’ – is not entirely new.
While the bread and butter of Justice Rapid Response’s activity is sending experts to support access to justice in a host of contexts, some of these missions were already being conducted remotely. Other deployments have been suspended amid the pandemic until it is safer to send experts.
In this interim period – as half of the world’s population is under confinement – like many professions, the field of human rights investigation is facing the challenge of how to do its work remotely, and how this will impact methods of working when the crisis eases.
Justice Rapid Response spoke with experts from its roster on their experience of working remotely. Marta Valiñas, an expert specialized in the issue of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) and deployed remotely by Justice Rapid Response, has been working on a series of documents for Colombia’s special court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP).
“In most situations, the ideal really is to combine remote working with field missions,” said Ms. Valiñas. “This allows you to become familiar with the reality on the ground, to meet with the teams and build relationships of trust with them, and to see how they conduct their work – including the challenges in terms of resources that they may face.”
According to Ms. Valiñas, working remotely becomes more difficult when you need information from several people on a range of topics.
“When you are discussing complex or difficult issues, I still think that face-to-face conversations can make a difference,” she said. “I also think that investigative interviews are better accomplished face-to-face.”
In the case of survivors, best practices in the field of human rights investigation hold that remote interviews should not replace face-to-face interviews. But for investigations involving contexts such as Syria, where outside investigators do not have access, it is sometimes necessary to do interviews remotely, for instance via phone.
For Agnes Wagenaar, a witness protection expert also undertaking remote work for the JEP, remote work is only effective if you already know the teams and partners with which you are working.
“There is a big element of trust in our line of work. Even in a mission context it takes time, and usually second or third missions are more effective than the first one,” said Ms. Wagenaar, who has already completed two 2- to 3-week missions with the JEP in Colombia.
“When I’m on mission, I totally disconnect from the outside world and immerse into the reality in that context,” she said. “Whereas from home I’m not quite as immersed.”
Wagenaar believes that it is best to make limited use of remote working, combined with missions to the field.
The extent to which human rights investigation work is done ‘from home’ depends of course on the nature of each profession. Field missions favour face-to-face relationships, informal networking, building trust and working with others on a project. Remote work favours tasks requiring more concentration.
“The legal field is well suited for doing work remotely because it involves a lot of reading, analyzing and drafting,” said Ms. Valiñas. “When you work as an independent consultant, you often conduct your work remotely, at least in part.”
Organizations and entities that have continued to request expert support from Justice Rapid Response’s roster also attest to the fact that, depending on the type of work being done, some tasks supporting human rights investigations are conducive to remote work.
Since it became operational in 2018, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) has implemented a flexible working culture, ensuring that its office is well equipped to support remote work.
“Even before the current situation, we had many staff availing of remote work options, confirming that – with the careful design of infrastructure and meticulous attention to security protocols – it is very possible for many aspects of accountability work to be carried out remotely,” said Michelle Jarvis, Deputy Head of the IIIM. “Of course, there are aspects of our work that are currently impacted by the Covid-19 restrictions, particularly around collection and investigation activities that require face-to-face interaction with interlocutors.”
There is a sense that the longer the pandemic endures, the more the pace of investigations could be impacted.
For human rights mechanisms, remote working is likely to be only the initial effect of the coronavirus pandemic. The actual impact of the virus on local populations at the centre of many such investigations is yet to seen. The toll of Covid-19 may make it even more difficult to reach civil society partners involved in the humanitarian response and increasingly harder to conduct interviews.