Human rights, testimony, and transnational publicity

In the period between the end of the cold war in 1989 and the events of September 11, 2001, human rights became the dominant moral narrative by which world politics was organized. Inspired by the momentous political and cultural transformations taking place at the time, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the spread of global communications technologies, promoters of human rights discourse optimistically predicted that a transnational public sphere dedicated to democratic values would emerge (We now know, of course, that such predictions were wrong, as early post cold war hopes gave way to the harsh realities of contemporary globalization).

In order to help create the transnational public sphere they envisioned, international human rights activists deployed a number of strategies, among them the production and circulation of testimonies by victims of rights abuses. Testimonies are first person narratives in which an individual's account of bodily suffering at the hands of oppressive governments or other agents come to stand for the oppression of a group. Rooted in dual Christian notions of witnessing and the body as the vehicle of suffering, testimony is a deeply persuasive cultural form that animates and moves western sensibilities. Although testimony has long played an important part in rights advocacy (dating back to abolitionism), its use grew in the 1990s and testimonies proliferated in multiple genres and arenas, from written texts to film and video documentaries to 'live' performances/face-to-face encounters in activist meetings, NGO forums and governmental hearings. My essay explores this phenomenon, focusing on the role of several mediated forms of testimony, e.g. 'cine testimonials' (testimony on film/video) and testimony online, in activist attempts to construct a transnational public.

While media are recognized as being critical to the general diffusion of human rights norms and values, especially in the post-WWII period, relatively little scholarly work exists that adequately addresses their role in the making of contemporary human rights claims. This neglect can be attributed to two things: first, a tendency to treat human rights as 'something out there' waiting to be realized legally or philosophically rather than as a flexible and expansive category through which politico-ethical claims are made and socio-political transitions are accomplished; and second, a tendency to overlook the fact that media are not merely conduits for social forces, or expressive of social realities, but possess a logic and power that is itself constitutive of thought, identity, and action. One implicit aim of this essay therefore is to counter rights legalism by demonstrating the centrality of media (and cultural production) to the human rights movement. To render something public once meant submitting it to the critical judgment of others; in recent years publicity has gained new meanings, the result of a 'bewildering array of spatial and technical mediations' making something public. As Rajagopal notes, "the effect of the means and modes of reproduction, whether analog or digital, electronic or mechanical, and the space of an event, whether in a shopping mall, a crowd, a city square, or for that matter, in a broadcast image or a website, all shape the experience of publicity in significant and different ways. The kinds of visibility a public event has are not secondary to its being public; rather, they condition the forms of publicity mobilized." The taxonomy of testimony proposed in this essay underscores Rajagopal's observation that analysis of public texts, events, and practices must be form-sensitive. Testimony can work through the enumeration of facts as well as through emotionally laden narratives of suffering; each entails a different kind of signification. Although human rights activists often deploy both kinds simultaneously, the larger point is that testimony is not a transparent genre or practice, as the following discussion of its mediation in various forms demonstrates.

Analysis of the relation between human rights testimonies and transnational publicity thus involves bringing aesthetic questions about formal semiotic properties and generic conventions to bear on considerations about how testimonies generate action outside the textual event itself. In this essay I argue that human rights testimonies can be understood as a form of political communication, as a means through which ethical arguments or claims are made and collectivities are hailed and potentially persuaded and mobilized.


The discovery and representation of information on human rights abuses through specific forms of realism is central to most human rights work. Indeed, human rights activists and organizations are first and foremost 'collectors, filterers, translators, and presenters of information regarding human rights violations' (Keck and Sikkink 1998: 3). The underlying assumption is that the circulation of such information generates political action, whether it be through direct pressure on governments or corporations to change their policies, or through the mobilization of individuals on a grassroots level. Although the naive epistemology about exposure and revelation upon which this belief is based has been challenged in recent years by situations in which knowledge has actually failed to produce action, most notably the war in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, it nevertheless remains a guiding principle of traditional human rights politics.

In the early years of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), activists devoted a huge amount of their energy to gathering specific data about violations which they analyzed according to human rights principles and put in the form of written reports. These 'thick rivers of fact' were circulated to governments and the press as evidence of their claims (Cmiel 1999). Activists' reliance on 'documentary rhetoric' (Hesford and Kozol in press) -- realist forms of representation and conventions of documentation-- presents a problem in that abuses are never clear-cut; there are always contradictions between human rights classifications of violence and how violence actually plays out on the ground. In order to manage the instability of the category upon which their claims are made, human rights activists formulate their reports using abstract universal discourses, and a particular style of journalistic realism. In his writing on human rights reports, Richard Wilson notes that the genre presents information as if it is simply factual and transparent; claims are supported with numerous references to how sources are checked, to international human rights standards, and to previous reports. By presenting their findings in this way, NGOs are able to appear credible (and their information objective) and in so doing to 'cultivate a veneer of independence and impartiality in the international arena, which helps legitimize their assertions about the need for human rights norms.'

In recent years this orthodox insistence upon memory, revelation, and documentation has started to come under considerable pressure especially in the context of truth commissions, which some have argued enable a process of forgetting -- rather than preventing them from forgetting-- crimes against humanity and human rights violations. This strand of research questions the relationship between witnessing, publicity, and collective remembrance, asking whether the more we know the more we actually forget.

Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News (2002), a documentary film directed by Katerina Cizek and Peter Winotick, is an instructive look at the role of digital video in documenting human rights abuses around the world. Filipino sociologist Alex Magno sets up the broader framework of the piece with his observation that video cameras are simply the latest in a long line of new communications technologies or ?small media? that have played a critical part in various political revolutions around the world, from audio cassettes in Iran in 1979 to faxes in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to email and text messaging in the Philippines in 2002.

Gillian Caldwell, director of the New York-based human rights media organization WITNESS, elaborates on Magno's point, underscoring the importance of video images gathered by activists as visual evidence of human rights violations. Drama is provided by the story of a Filipino activist named Joey who works closely with a group of indigenous people in the Philippines known as the 'Nakamata Coalition'. We first see Joey training members of the coalition to document their struggles with local plantation owners over land in Mindanao, and then we see Coalition members take the camera out by themselves in order to document a meeting with outside officials. This practice of documenting oral transactions on video has emerged as an important one for indigenous people who view such transactions as contractually binding within their own societies. By videotaping discussions about land claims, for instance, non-literate activists have recourse to video records when agreements between parties break down.Soon after the Coalition training process finishes, violence breaks out and the camera, provided by WITNESS, is there to record it all.

At the heart of this film is a theory of truth and transparency that is premised on two things: (1) the authenticity of experience (I was there, I witnessed it, therefore it is true) and (2) a commitment to the gathering and display of visible evidence. Yet as countless writers on documentary photography and film point out, the truth status of moving images has always depended on critical contextualization. Images do not accomplish meaning without framing, a point perhaps most starkly illustrated by the various readings of the Rodney King video footage elicited by the prosecution and the defense during the trials. Ilan Ziv's documentary Consuming Hunger (1988) further underscores the need for contextual information in order to educate audiences about what they are actually seeing. Although the transparency attributed to video evidence parallels that attributed to legalistic realist forms such as written human rights reports, human rights testimonials on film, or 'cine testimonials' can be distinguished by the use of explicit framing devices that supplement images with specifically targeted information aimed at provoking change.


In a recent book, Neta Crawford (2002) explores the consequential role of argument in world politics. Her theory of argument focuses on place of ethical arguments in fostering changes in long-standing practices of oppression such as colonialism, slavery, and forced labor:

"Ethical arguments concern how to act in a particular situation so as to be doing good, assuming that the good has been defined through cultural consensus or meta-argument." (Crawford 2002: 24)

They operate through an assertion that an 'existing normative belief or moral conviction ought to be applied in a particular situation.'(Crawford ibid.) She points out that assertions that slavery was not 'natural' and against Christian principles, for instance, were persuasive because they were emotionally appealing--they played on and resonated with audiences' underlying ethical and moral beliefs.

The use of testimony by abolitionists can be seen as an early precursor of the use of testimony by human rights activists in the post-WWII era.9 Like slave narratives, human rights testimonies are important vehicles through which ethical arguments are made. They use symbols, images, and accounts of individual experiences of suffering in such a way as to affectively engage and persuade their audiences of a cause's moral worth.

Testimony is premised on the belief that pain is universal, that it crosses all boundaries. This belief in the universality of pain and its effectiveness as a tool for creating solidarity is underscored by researchers who have found that torture is the easiest human rights issue to campaign around (Cohen 2001, 1996). Essentially testimony functions as a medium through which identification with a suffering 'other' can take place. Through our identification, we become connected to a political project and can be moved to action. Alison Brysk writes that "a message can foment change by creating an alternative reality, transferring daily experience to a different realm in which it is valued and thus opening the recipient to consider a new social order."(1995:560). In this sense human rights testimonies are performative - they make ethical claims on viewers and listeners and cultivate potential ethical actors in the global arena.

This observation is perhaps best exemplified by a recent video, Testimony: Annie Lennox in Conversation with Palden Gyatso (1998). Produced and directed by Annie Lennox, the well-known Scottish singer from the Eurythmics, the video documents the testimony of Palden Gyatso, a monk from Tibet who after the Chinese takeover in 1959. A large portion of the half hour program is devoted to Gyatso's tale of his arrest and mistreatment by Chinese authorities over the years, including torture with an electric cattle prod that, ironically, is made in Britain. At one point Gyatso pulls out several torture instruments which he brought out with him from Tibet (we never learn how the monk manages that). He leans forward and demonstrates to Lennox the way the thumb cuffs work. Lennox, for her part, leans forward too, watching and listening attentively to Gyatso. In this moment, we see how testimony functions as a kind of intercultural technology, bringing individuals together from different worlds through the medium of pain.

Testimonial documentaries thus work on an affective level by exposing audiences to stories of pain with which we cannot help but identify on the basis of our shared humanity. They also work on another level of signification, one that reinforces the first. As 'a discourse about the world' as Nichols puts it, documentaries show us situations and events ?that are recognizably part of a realm of shared experience, the historical world as we know and encounter it, or as we believe others to encounter it? (1991:x). Our experience of documentary 'can be a force unto itself and move us beyond itself, toward that historical arena of which it is part' (1991:xvi). In other words, our engagement with documentary can extend 'beyond the moment of viewing into social praxis itself' (Nichols 1991:x). How is this effect achieved? The answer begins with the exceptionality of documentary's referentiality and the materiality of the indexical bond that exists between the photographic image and the object in the historical world to which it refers. What we see on film can seem 'to bear indexical links to another world with autonomy and specificity of its own,' although as the Rodney King video proves, even 'raw' video footage doesn't guarantee a particular meaning. This creates a sense of awe which makes it easy to forget we are dealing with a sign system rather than a direct, unmediated duplication of reality. The result, he suggests, is a constant oscillation between the duplication of reality and the reality of the duplication. The tendency to forget that the filmic reality remains a construct, an approximation and re-presentation of a pro-filmic reality to which we do not gain truly direct, unimpeded access, however, is what gives viewers of realist documentaries such pleasure: For the time being their knowledge of this fact is suspended and they can surrender themselves to the immediacy of the reality onscreen.

Much has been written about this attribute of 'resemblance' in the documentary aesthetic. There is a strand of documentary theory that has tried to recuperate realist film in recent years by making an argument for the politicizing potential of documentary based on its 'aesthetics of similarity' (Feldman 1996). Gaines, for example, uses the term 'political mimesis' (1990:90) to describe the process whereby a sensuous link is formed between bodies represented on screen and bodies in the audience. Here she is building on the work of film theorist Linda Williams (1994) who writes about film genres that 'make the body do things' through a kind of involuntary mimicry of emotion or sensation of the body on screen, e.g. 'horror films make us scream, melodrama makes us cry, and porn films make us come' (cited in Gaines 1999:90). According to Gaines, realist political documentaries work by performing a mimesis, that is they produce emotion in the spectator in and through conventionalized imagery of struggle. Through an indexical identification with characters on screen, spectators, then, are 'poised to intervene.' As she is careful to point out, however, shared cultural and historical values, and not the indexical image alone, are what lead to viewers' sympathetic action. In other words, political mimesis is possible because an audience shares the same set of political, historical, cultural forces. Realism, then, is a device that, through the process of political mimesis, acts on a politicized audience, extending the community of activists.

I suggest that human rights testimonies on film and video achieve their representational efficacy through the same process of political mimesis described by Gaines. By producing and circulating these texts, activists explicitly seek to create moral spaces through which processes of political mimesis can occur, and sympathy can be evoked and performed (Nichols 1994:13). It is in this sense that a transnational 'witnessing public' around human rights trauma is constituted through testimony (McLagan 2003).


The global spread of electronic and new digital technologies over the last two decades has transformed the ways in which social movements organize their relationship to publicity (see McLagan 2002). Human rights activists have been in the forefront of the creation of a new kind of media activism, one that not only makes sophisticated and innovative use of techniques of celebrity and publicity through a wide range of forms, including older analog media such as print, photography, and film, and new digital media such as the Internet, CD-ROMs and handheld video cameras, but that also involves the creation of new organizational structures that provide a kind of scaffolding for the production and distribution of these media. Indeed, a whole new arena of social practice has emerged around human rights media, from organizations that provide media training to activists such as WITNESS,, and Digital Freedom Network, to those that provide outlets for distribution such as the International Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and These organizations help activists channel their media to their intended audiences, whether in classrooms, on home video, in movie theaters, on the Web, or in governmental (e.g. U.S. Congress), intergovernmental (the United Nations), and non-governmental forums. In providing the means for the production and distribution of human rights media, these new organizational forms are contributing to the creation of a new circulatory matrix or platform through which testimonies can summon witnessing publics.

This aspect of the human rights movement builds on a long history of pioneering work by Amnesty International, which was the first group to attempt to 'brand' their organization through the creation of a logo in the 1970s. The explosion of rights-oriented digital media in the second half of the 1990s represents an expansion of this kind of image politics, with human rights activists self-consciously deploying complex rhetorical strategies borrowed from advertising.

Before the creation of the World Wide Web, political activists used the internet to connect to each other via email, newsgroups, and chat rooms; the 'virtual politics' (see McLagan 1996) carried out online was a largely logocentric affair. Since that time, as it has become faster, easier, and cheaper to send visual data electronically, there has been a seismic shift in political use of networked computers. Today activists of all stripes recognize the necessity of having a presence online - well-designed websites are now assumed to be key 'portals' of entry into activism, especially by members of the younger generation who take the existence of the technology for granted. In the case of human rights websites, increasingly we find information and testimonies presented not in gritty realist documentary style, but embedded in such things as flash graphics and sometimes even supplemented by downloadable audio files in MP3 format?strategies which pivot not on emotional identification like that discussed above but rather on different forms of signification.

The significance of this shift in relation to age and generation was brought home to me in my teaching recently when I asked students in an undergraduate class on human rights to pick out their favorite rights websites. I was interested in what students thought about how the sites were organized and the aesthetic strategies that were used, as well as what conclusions they might draw about their potential efficacy as tools to promote human rights. One of sites we explored together was, a project of Amnesty International. On the bottom of the screen were the words ?click here to stamp out torture.? Absurd as the proposition that one could simple click and stop such a practice might appear to me, none of my students appeared to question the claims of sites promising visitors this kind of 'fast and easy activism.' The point was underscored when we looked at the site ( of a local Amnesty International group based in the Boston/Cambridge area called Group133 which was responsible for organizing a campaign to free fourteen Tibetan nuns imprisoned by the Chinese for demanding their homeland's independence. Group 133 launched in December 2001. I had been interested in the site initially after reading something about the site's innovative use of MP3 files. While in prison, the fourteen young women managed to secretly make a tape recording of songs calling for Tibetan independence; the tape was smuggled out of Drapchi prison and eventually it landed on the desk of Robbie Barnett, founder(11) of Tibet Information Network, in London. After removing the names of the women on the tape in order to protect their identities, Barnett made the tape available to human rights groups interested in the nuns' situation, including Group 133.

Drawing on Amnesty International's prisoners of conscience model, Group 133's Drapchi 14 campaign was designed to publicize the situation of the nuns and in so doing, to win their release. In an interview, one of the group's organizers, Carl Williams, adopted a marketing metaphor to describe what they were doing: "If you want to use the marketing term `branding' ... to get a person's name out there makes it much more difficult to torture or kill that person,'' Williams told the Globe reporter (Cox 2002).

Williams' comment about branding prisoners of conscience raises an interesting set of issues that are worth spelling out briefly. First, what does it mean for human rights advocates to articulate their politics using a commercial idiom? Like the subjects of countless human rights documentaries, the individuals represented on the drapchi14 site are victims whose stories of suffering are meant to provoke our identification and to stimulate political action. Yet the way in which they are represented, through the techniques of celebrity and advertising, transforms their meaning. Or does it? Could it be that there are different ways of interpreting or decoding the relation between the form and the content, such that what strikes one generation as the 'aestheticization of politics' strikes another as a new way to reconcile political goals and capitalist aims through a pervasive and influential medium? For those who have grown up in the post-1970s era, one marked by growing presence of social marketing, is it simply a take for granted mode of political communication? Do teenagers and twentysomethings simply possess a different aesthetic, as Lev Manovich suggests in his writing on the use of Flash software in web design, than that of previous generations who located gritty politics in realist representation? Indeed, can we map the continuing evolution of technological and aesthetic strategies and the consequent production of new political forms in terms of generational shifts?

More work needs to be done on the link between the emergence of new commercial venues in which human rights testimonies circulate, e.g. in advertisements such as those for Benetton, on MTV, and their forms of signification. Clearly encountering testimonies in such contexts challenges our sense of where such material belongs, e.g. in the so-called rational public sphere where citizens deliberate political issues. The question is how and whether deeply moral and politically contested issues can be meaningfully expressed in commercial culture using commercial language. Given that it is our language, how do we effectively suffuse it with meanings that resist the rhetoric of advertising, which is designed specifically not to tell the truth, or to convey complex or contradictory ideas? Does the option to ?click here? merely position us as consumers who are choosing between predetermined possibilities online or is it meaningful way of taking 'action'?

A second issue that is linked to the idea of branding victims of human rights abuses is that of efficacy. In a chapter of No Logo, Naomi Klein (1999) examines some of the limits and contradictions of what she calls 'brand-based politics' by which she means anti-globalization activism that focuses on individual companies such as Nike, Shell, McDonalds, or Starbucks. Klein notes that although targeting popular brand corporations has been successful, these sorts of campaigns can have unintended and contradictory consequences (e.g. with companies often spending more time and money on publicity than on internal reform, or people feeling they must consume more ethically, and not do much else). Similarly, by focusing a campaign on individual sufferers of human rights abuses who have been 'branded' in a certain way on these sites, activists run the risk of freeing certain people but not necessarily achieving the long term effect they desire--forcing governments to change their practices. For example, in recent years China has released several of the most well known Drapchi prisoners on condition that they leave the country. This is part of a much broader Chinese policy toward dissidents which enables the government to quiet western criticism of its poor human rights record without actually having to make major changes. Once the individuals are released, pressure is usually relieved on the PRC and attention focused elsewhere. Thus although activists are always extremely happy to be able to secure the freedom of individual dissidents, there are clear limits on deploying publicity in this manner.


In my introduction, I noted that human rights activists often deploy various genres of testimony simultaneously, each of which circulates in particular arenas, reaching particular audiences. I want to conclude by suggesting we think about this practice in terms of activists? use of different 'registers' to construct political issues. These registers feed off and at times clash with each other in interesting and productive ways. For instance, logocentric and realist forms of documentary evidence and testimony continue to play a fundamental role in the work done by human rights lawyers; they remain powerfully persuasive to U.S. Congressional committees, international legal bodies, and nongovernmental organizations that seek to influence policy rather than mass audiences. Human rights documentary film and video, though they rely on a similar concept of visible evidence, are visual media and as such have a capacity to generate emotion in audiences through the use of evocative storytelling and affective imagery. Activists use this form to mobilize new publics around individuals who function as 'nodal points' in a transnational network of identification and solidarity (Nelson 2001:305). Through victims' onscreen narratives or testimonies, witnesses are situated as potential ethical actors that might intervene in the situation that produced the suffering which is on display.

Finally, we know that new media refashion prior media forms such as writing, film, and photography, and that this process of 'remediation' (Bolter and Grusin 1999) upends old ideas about subjects and participants, producers and texts that underpin theories about how media work. So, for instance, if we look at human rights websites we find that instead of occupying just one position, we occupy multiple shifting positions (e.g. as voyeurs, as consumers, as activists). How does this multiple positioning square with the argument made above that human rights media offer one subject position, that of witness with ethical responsibility? Understanding the ways in which digital activism might reshape the possible horizon of identities and actions that can be produced is critical to making sense of the new arenas of practice and publicity that are emerging around human rights.