Q&A: Human Rights around the Globe: Advocating for the World’s Desperate and Forgotten

Peter Bouckaert, JD ’97, Emergencies Director, Human Rights Watch

Peter Bouckaert’s job stays with him long after he’s left an assignment. The Syrian man sleeping in the spare room at Bouckaert’s home in France is evidence of his 24/7 commitment to Human Rights Watch, the American-based NGO that investigates human rights abuses around the world, bringing attention to atrocities through its impartial fact finding and effective use of media.

“What we do means acting on the personal level as well as the larger policy level,” says Bouckaert, who has led investigations into dozens of crises during his 20-year career.

He explains that Sameh, a refugee from Aleppo, was his translator in Hungary, helping Bouckaert with HRW’s research into the plight of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. “He had been living legally in Hungary but things there had gotten so bad, and his visa renewal had been declined. So, I told him ‘jump on a train and come stay here while you sort through the process.’ My family is accustomed to this now, it’s happened many times before,” says Bouckaert.

Bouckaert’s resume reads like a catalog of the world’s most serious humanitarian abuses, with his work taking him to Syria, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and other international hot spots.

His job puts him up close with some of the worst of human nature, and some of the most resilient. Part lawyer, part journalist, he travels the globe bearing witness—gathering evidence and recording what took place, piecing together the story and making sure the world hears it. The fact finding that he and his colleagues do is both dangerous and essential in a world of sensory overload and false news. He employs the caution of a lawyer, patiently building each case, careful not to jump to conclusions. The day before Bouckaert spoke with Stanford Lawyer, a chemical attack had been launched in Syria, but he was quick to point out that the investigation had only just begun and HRW would not point fingers before having all the facts.

Bouckaert and his team use all the tools at their disposal to share their findings with the world—tweeting, posting videos, reaching out to reporters and world leaders, often in real time as events are unfolding. Whether his October 2016 report on Venezuela’s severe shortage of medical supplies and food, now much in the news, or his tweet of a photo of a drowned Syrian child washed up on a
Turkish shore resulting in a world-wide reaction in 2015, his work breaks through the din into popular media and brings attention to these tragedies.

He joined Human Rights Watch right after graduating from Stanford Law School, but his path to HRW began earlier while on a one-year hiatus from his legal studies to work with Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, George Bizos, in South Africa. There, Bouckaert helped draft the Truth and Reconciliation Commission legislation and then assisted Bizos on the young country’s first constitutional case—a challenge to the death penalty. Now a seasoned expert in the field, Bouckaert has become a trusted voice from the field and is often quoted in news reports and interviewed on television. In HRW’s popular blog, Dispatches, he offers a more personal view of his work and his observations—calling attention to issues not often written about, such as the thousands of disabled people who need extra help from the humanitarian community when crisis hits and the double-edged sword of social media, which has helped to raise awareness of crises but has also been used to intimidate those working in the field.

When Bouckaert spoke with Stanford Lawyer for this interview, he had just gotten back from a lengthy investigation in the Philippines, where he and his team went undercover to speak with victims of President Duterte’s war on drugs. The report was published in March and is still making waves. If the burden of this work is becoming too heavy though, Bouckaert isn’t letting on.

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Illustration by Gary Taxali

Jennifer S. Martinez, Professor of Law and Warren Christopher Professor in the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy

Jenny S. Martinez has another view of human rights work—from the classroom and the courtroom. A leading scholar on international courts and tribunals, international human rights, national security, constitutional law, and the laws of war, Martinez is an experienced litigator and popular professor. Her research focuses on the role of courts and tribunals in advancing and protecting human rights, both historically and today. She has studied the all-but-forgotten 19th-century international tribunals involved in the suppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and has analyzed contemporary institutions like the International Criminal Court and the role of courts in policing human rights abuses in connection with anti-terrorism policies. She has written extensively on national security law and the constitutional separation of powers for both academic journals and the popular press and is a frequent commentator for both print and broadcast media. Martinez is the author of The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Martinez has also worked on numerous cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of appeals involving international law and constitutional law issues, including cases involving the Alien Tort Statute, the Torture Victim Protection Act, and the detention and trial of post-9/11 detainees. She serves on the board of directors for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which promotes human rights and builds legal capacity for open societies around the world, and is a member of the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Law. Early in her career she was an associate legal officer for Judge Patricia Wald of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where she worked on trials involving genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Martinez also clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer (BA ’59) of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. —by Sharon Driscoll

Martinez There are a lot of people talking about the human rights system being under a lot of strain, with the election of President Trump in the United States, with Brexit, with far-right parties making a comeback in some European countries—and the European Court of Human Rights buckling under its case load and the inter-American human rights system under pressure. What do you make of this situation?

Bouckaert I think that’s right. This is probably the most profound challenge to the system that was set up after World War II to try to prevent those kinds of mass atrocities and create some global stability. It’s a challenge not only to the human rights system that was put in place with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of the United Nations, but also to the economic institutions that were put in place to try to promote economic integration and co-operation on a global level. I think in the face of that challenge, and the danger of the kind of global instability that led to World War II, it’s really important that we, as progressives, recognize the challenges that we have to face and try to come up with solutions to those challenges because obviously a lot of people around the world are pretty dissatisfied with their economic situations and don’t feel like the human rights framework really addresses the problems that they face in their personal lives.

Martinez Why do you think we’ve come to this point?

Bouckaert I do think there is a lot of elitism in politics, especially in places like the United States where politics has become a game among the rich and they ignore the kind of economic situations faced by a lot of marginalized and poor people. So I think it’s really important that we re-engage on many issues that we face in the United States, but also abroad.

Martinez When you think in terms of the relation of civil and political to economic, social, and cultural rights, does this moment suggest the need for greater integration between those two sides in the field?

Bouckaert Definitely. I think a lot of the populism is related to a lack of attention paid in the past to economic, social, and cultural rights. So we do need to seek a greater integration of both civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other because they are very closely related. It’s a real mistake to place them in different baskets.

Martinez Let’s turn now to the war in Syria. We read in headlines in April of another apparent chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime—and, yet, the international community seems paralyzed about how to resolve this ongoing conflict. What is Human Rights Watch doing now? How has its strategy changed, and what can we do to remedy this incredible humanitarian crisis?

Bouckaert Well, first of all, it’s really important for us to base our response on the facts. There is a lot of rushing to conclusions, including in terms of accountability, responsibility for the chemical attack in Syria—the first chemical attack carried out by a warplane, at least since before the one that took place in Iraq 25 years ago. So there are a lot of complex technical questions that we need to ask first, to really establish who was responsible for this attack and even what chemical agent was used in the attack, and that’s one of the values of the work that Human Rights Watch does. It may sound boring and counter-intuitive, but it is really important to slow down at times like these and remember what happened with Colin Powell at the U.N. Security Council prior to the lead up to the Iraq War and also the baby incubator story coming out of Kuwait, where it was claimed that babies were ripped out of their incubators, but then the story turned out to be false. At these moments, facts really matter.

Secondly, it is important that we overcome these international divisions between the East and the West on these profoundly important issues of global stability. What’s happening in Syria doesn’t just affect the Syrian people—there have been over half a million people killed in Syria so far and that affects all of our security. How we deal with refugees is really related to how we deal with ISIS and the threat of Islamic extremism. We can’t, on the one hand, try to fight Islamic extremism through military means, and then try to block people who are trying to flee from this violence from reaching safety and security outside of their country.

Martinez One striking change over the past 20 years in the human rights field is the advent of social media and the smartphone, putting a computer and camera into everyone’s hands. How do you think about those changes in technology when you think about your role in uncovering the facts and do they make your job easier or harder?

Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director Peter Bouckaert (center) meets with Colonel Saleh Zabadani (far left) and General Mahamat Bahar (second from the left) of the Seleka Forces in Bossangoa. 
Photo by Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

emergencies director Peter Bouckaert (center) meets with Coloniel Saleh Zabadani
(far left) and General Mahamat Bahar
(Second from the left) of the Seleka Forces in Bossangoa

Bouckaert Well, they make my job both easier and harder. When Human Rights Watch investigated the chemical attacks in Halabja more than a quarter century ago, it took us nearly a decade to establish that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was responsible for those attacks. When the attacks happened in 2013 in Ghouta, it took us less than three weeks. That’s because of our access to social media and our ability to reach out directly to the people affected by these incidents—eyewitnesses and people on the ground—allowing us to establish exactly what weapons were used and that only the Syrian authorities have access to those kinds of weapons. But at the same time, it allows just about everybody to pollute the waters, and to challenge the debate, which has provided a real opportunity for false news to emerge.

This has become a big story in the United States and the election of Donald Trump, but it’s actually a challenge we have faced for many years, from Russian and other counter-information campaigns spreading false news, when we establish crimes committed by these types of regimes—such as Assad in Syria and Gaddafi in Libya.

Martinez What do you think about the role of social media? Here in Silicon Valley, we’ve got Facebook, Twitter—everyone’s right down the street. How do you think about these giant social media companies in a human rights framework?

Bouckaert I come out to Silicon Valley at least two times a year to meet with Google and Apple and other prominent companies to discuss exactly these issues, which are very much at the core of their thinking. For the most part, these really are companies that want to strike an ethical balance between promoting free speech, making money from their various enterprises, but also blocking hate speech and terrorist groups from using their platforms to their advantage. It is a very difficult balance to strike.

Even in terms of investigating war crimes, we are constantly faced with the fact that social media contacts from people who commit war crimes are taken down from social media platforms before we can preserve the evidence of their crimes. It’s not really a simple or straightforward issue and it does require a careful balance between advocating for very free speech and also ensuring that hate speech and the promotion of terrorism don’t gain access to a very powerful platform.

Just to give you an example, I was one of the first people to share the image of the young boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey trying to reach sanctuary in the European Union. And for weeks afterwards, even though I know a lot of Twitter executives, my entire Twitter feed was characterized as “sensitive,” so that any image I put on Twitter, you had to click on to see, simply because I had shared that image of a dead boy off the coast of Turkey. Repeatedly, Twitter de-classified my Twitter feed as sensitive, but then filters automatically re-classified it because of various complaints coming in about sharing a graphic image. So even for somebody like me, who is seen by Time Magazine as one of the most prominent people on Twitter, we face these challenges.

 Martinez One thing you’ve talked about recently is the threat to activists from social media “trolls”—something I think you may have experienced. How big a problem is this for human rights advocates?

Bouckaert Look, when we investigate people, such as President Duterte of the Philippines, for crimes against humanity, we do actually accuse them of crimes that can lead to their prosecution and ultimate imprisonment, so these are very serious matters and it’s quite clear that individuals like that will fight back by any means necessary, including the use of death threats. They also, with social media, are able to deploy vast armies of trolls who amplify their threats against their critics. President Duterte actually told his police that they should go out and kill anybody who accuses him of unlawful killings, and he would pardon them for those killings. These are not just empty words on social media. They do translate into actions and they do pose a real threat to security—not just for international activists like me who at least have some protection in terms of our complex of various international actors and our matching taskforce, but especially for our local colleagues working inside these countries.

Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert interviews Iraqi citizens affected by the U.S. Military presence in Iraq in 2003
Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Martinez Let’s talk a little bit more about Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and other actions that have resulted in a very large number of extra-judicial killings. It seems like that must have been a particularly dangerous investigation for Human Rights Watch and, as you suggest, for other local activists who may not have the same high profile as an international NGO. How do you think about precautions for your staff and local activists?

Bouckaert It’s a tremendous responsibility on your shoulders because you realize that every action you take, every person you contact, every interview can result in somebody’s death. These neighborhoods are filled with government informants, and you constantly have to think about not just your own security, but the security of your driver, your translator, your photographer, and particularly the people you meet with. On several occasions in the Philippines, we actually saw the death squads drive past us while we were interviewing people whose relatives had been killed by
those very same people. It really is a situation where every single moment, you have to think about potential harm that you can cause to all of the people you are working with and all of the people you are interacting with. It’s a very stressful environment to work in.

Martinez The flip side of that is when you really feel like you’ve made a difference. As you look back on your work, are there a few moments that stand out and make you feel “this is why it’s worth all of the trouble that comes with doing human rights work”?

Bouckaert I am constantly going in the wrong direction. I go to places where people are fleeing conflict—
atrocities—to try to interview those that have witnessed those atrocities. I think we inspire a lot of hope that the atrocities will end, that they will be documented, and that those responsible will ultimately be held accountable.

There’s the big picture and then there’s the small one. We worked of course in documenting chemical weapons attacks in 2013 in Southern Damascus and established that the Syrian government was responsible for those attacks, which led to the dismantling of the chemical weapons program. I spent two years in the Central African Republic, which is a country most people don’t know exists, documenting just how close the country came to genocide and ultimately being able to figure out how to deploy a peacekeeping force there. And also to get the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to open a new investigation. Those feel like pretty significant accomplishments.

But what matters to me is the difference that we make in people’s personal lives—all those individuals we’ve helped to safety. Just last week, I had a Syrian refugee arrive at my apartment in France, where he is staying for the next six months until he obtains asylum here. You know, he was totally surprised that I would open up my home to him so that he could get refugee status. I just told him, “Look. That’s what our commitment to human rights means: acting on the personal level on top of the larger policy level.”

Martinez Going back to the investigative work that is so essential to human rights, once you’ve collected information, how do you bring human rights violators to justice? As we look at the number of defendants brought before the ICC or other international tribunals or national courts, it’s a relatively small number of people brought to justice.

Bouckaert Look, six months after I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1997, I found myself in Northern Uganda, documenting the crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and I was interviewing 14-, 15-year-old boys and girls who had been raped and subjected to horrific abuse, then had been forced to kill. It was a pretty big shock to go from reading law books to seeing just a complete disregard for any kind of standards or legal principles on such a scale.

When we look at the prosecutions at the ICC, which are very limited in number, we ignore the impact that human rights investigators have by going on the ground and documenting these crimes, interacting with the people who are committing these crimes. I have sat down in the Central African Republic with commanders of the Séléka and the Anti-Balaka militias and I’ve shown them the satellite images of the villages they’ve burned and the notebooks full of testimonies about the crimes they have committed. We are able to really persuade them to stop the killings and to show them that there could be consequences for their actions. I really do think to be effective we need a greater presence on the ground, in terms of documentation and in terms of dialogue. That, to me, is the most disturbing element of Trump’s isolationist policies. The U.S. has this tremendous credibility on human rights and on the global stage, which is a real asset to its role in the world. Under Trump, it’s simply sloughing away at this magnificent asset.

Martinez Human Rights Watch has cited the administration and its approach as a major threat to human rights. Can you talk about the Trump administration and its policies—the travel ban, the policy toward refugees, and the overall approach to international human rights?

Bouckaert Yeah. I honestly feel that probably the greatest threats to U.S. security right now are the policies being pursued by the Trump administration. We are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the Middle East, those who are directly affected by the ISIS threat, much more so than people in the West. Our words and actions really matter. If we ban Muslims from coming to the United States and if we prevent refugees from fleeing the atrocities they’re facing at home at the hand of Islamic extremists, then we’re sending exactly the wrong message.

These policies do have a tremendous impact on our ability to promote human rights around the world, because when we talk about issues like nepotism in a place like Azerbaijan, for example, or the use of torture and other abuses, increasingly those governments are saying, “Well, that’s exactly what the United States is doing. Why are you criticizing us for adopting the same policies that Donald Trump is promoting?” That really impacts our work in human rights around the world—not just in the United States. At least in the United States, you have the institutions to fight back. You have the judiciary, you have Congress—the House and the Senate—and you have very qualified people over in the State Department and the military who will resist some of these abusive policies—even some who have learned the lessons of the Bush administration regarding torture and black sites and other abusive policies. But we don’t have such protections in many other places around the world, so the impact of Trump’s devaluation of human rights standards will be much greater abroad than it is here in the U.S.

Martinez Nikki Haley has made some very negative statements about the Human Rights Council, raising the possibility that the U.S. might, once again, withdraw. Another Stanford Law alum, Eileen Donahoe, JD ’88, has served on that body. What do you think about the role of the Human Rights Council among U.N. institutions and about the direction in which such bodies are heading right now?

Bouckaert Look, the Human Rights Council certainly is a very flawed institution. As Human Rights Watch and others have pointed out, it is problematic that human rights abusers, like Saudi Arabia at the moment, are allowed to serve on the Human Rights Council, while they are committing very serious abuses at home. At the same time, we have to recognize that it is an important institution for the promotion of human rights. It’s one of the only places where abuses committed in various countries around the world are openly discussed and which has the ability to appoint commissions of inquiry and carry out other international procedures to actually investigate those human rights abuses. So, we can’t just discard the only body we have that is playing a role in the investigation of some of the most serious human rights abuses around the world. We have to try to improve it and certainly address some of its shortcomings, and we do have to work with what we have and recognize that in many situations—including in Syria right now—it has played a very important role in exposing and investigating the atrocities being committed there.

Martinez While we’re on the subject of Stanford Law alums, Omar Shakir, JD ’13, is now an investigator for Human Rights Watch. He was recently denied a work visa for Israel. How do you deal with governments that may not be so eager to have investigators on the ground? How do you negotiate that so you’re able to do your work?

Bouckaert Human Rights Watch in general takes the position that it’s part of the human rights framework that we have the right to investigate the abuses being committed around the world. We don’t try to obtain formal government permission to carry out our investigations because we feel it would give those governments a veto over our ability to access the country. Oftentimes, during the negotiations that would then take place, we would be forced to limit the scope of our investigations in an unacceptable way.

Honestly, many governments around the world do have the ability to ban us from accessing their territory, by refusing to give a visa. For example, that’s what happened with Omar Shakir. After he was refused the visa to Israel, we raised the issue publicly, after some private discussions failed, and he has now been able to return and work in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. So, it is really important that we do have access to many of these places, and when governments refuse us access, we will make sure the world notices.

Martinez Like Omar, you joined Human Rights Watch right out of Stanford Law. Can you talk about your career path and how current students might follow in your footsteps?

Bouckaert Actually, when I went to Stanford Law School, a little over 20 years ago, I went to the career center and when asked what I wanted to do over the summer, I said, “I want to do a human rights internship” and I was basically laughed out of the room. I was told, “If that’s what you want to do, you’ll just have to go to the library and look for yourself.” So that’s what I did.

I ended up applying for a number of positions in South Africa. I first applied for a position with Dullah Omar and he wrote me back saying he would be unavailable because he was going to be justice minister in the first post-Apartheid government. Then I had the amazing opportunity of working with Nelson Mandela’s lawyer George Bizos. I took a year off from Stanford Law School to help draft the Truth Commission legislation and to also write the first constitutional case in South Africa, challenging the death penalty. We won four constitutional cases in that first year.

I guess now things have changed. Human rights careers have become much more a mainstream career to pursue, but I do think it’s important for people who want to pursue a human rights career to get experience abroad and learn from the incredibly talented and dedicated people around the world who in many cases have been carrying out the struggle for decades. I came out of my first year at Stanford, going out to South Africa thinking that I would also teach South African lawyers a lot about criminal, procedural, and constitutional law and actually it was the other way around. It was an incredible learning experience for me. I do think it’s important to chart our own paths and to seek the opportunities to learn from the people who have led the human rights struggles around the world.

When people apply out of Stanford for an internship at Human Rights Watch, my response to them normally is “I’d love to host you in our offices in New York, but you’d be so much better off going to Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any place that you feel connected to the issues that you care about, working with local lawyers, rather than filing papers with Human Rights Watch New York.”

Martinez We have a lot of alummi in private practice  who would like to do human rights pro bono work. What advice would you have for them?

Bouckaert You know, I come to some of our alumni meetings and I do think that people who are in corporate careers can make more of a social contribution outside of their day job. We do have a lot of cases that we just can’t handle ourselves—asylum cases for the United States, domestic violence cases, as well as a lot of background research for a lot of international issues. So we have been able to bring a lot of corporate pro bono lawyers into the regular work we do and they have made a very valuable contribution. I think it’s important to identify the issues that you’re passionate about—they may be issues of LGBT rights, or women’s rights, and I’m sure we can match you up with some project that we’re working on and you can make a real difference with your skill set that you bring to the issue.

Martinez When you look back to when you were a student, what do you think you got out of your time at Stanford Law that has helped you in your career?

Bouckaert It definitely was the best choice I ever made, to come to Stanford Law School. It was such a small school I managed to build some incredible relationships with the professors I worked with. I actually became a research or a teaching assistant to three different professors at Stanford, which really lowered my loan burden as well! They all taught me a lot of skills that I continue to use until today. What really sets a law education apart from many other degrees is the focus on critical thinking. For the last few days, I have been investigating the chemical weapons attack in Syria and we have not said who was responsible for this attack, or even how it was carried out, because we’re still going through the very basic analysis of what kind of weapons were used, how they were delivered, and what the effect of those weapons would be. The ability to just take a step back from the pack and engage in critical analysis is really what I was taught at Stanford. It continues to be an incredibly valuable skill.

Martinez Thank you for your time, Peter. Thank you.