"Human rights abuses are worse when violators aren’t afraid of detection." That’s the considered opinion of Gillian Caldwell and the driving force behind Witness, the organization she heads.
An international human rights organization co-founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Witness provides local human rights groups around the world with video cameras and helps them incorporate their footage into advocacy campaigns. Work may be distributed locally, used as evidence, streamed on the Internet, archived by Witness, and even incorporated into longer works, depending on the goals of the partner group. Witness has equipped over 150 organizations in 50 countries since the organization’s inception in 1992, and currently works with 80 active partners.
"Our partnerships last as long as our partners remain active and using video advocacy. So we have some that date back to the early days, 1994 and 1995, and we have some that phase in and out on an annual basis," Caldwell says. "Experience has taught us that our strongest partnerships are those initiated by local groups. As a result, we don’t solicit applications." Although Witness received 40 new applicants for video equipment last year alone, only 10 became partners.
The range of locations of the partner groups reflects the severity of the world’s human rights crises: Honduras, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Burma, Rwanda, Algeria, Kosovo, Sierra Leone. The list is a familiar one. But a visitor to Witness’s website (www.witness.org) only has to sample some of the images streamed there to be reminded how real and personal the violence perpetrated against men, women, and children in the name of political stability or to protect corporate profit can be.
Productions like Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan bring the issue right home. A co-production of Witness and Oxygen Media, Behind the Labels exposes the cruel conditions under which immigrant workers manufacture clothing for big name American brands. The film reveals how The Gap, J. Crew, and others that bear the "Made in the USA" label don’t provide the women who sew them the benefit of U.S. labor practices.
Witness partners typically receive up to $3,000 in equipment. In the beginning, the package might have included a Hi8 camera. Now it’s more likely to be a Sony PC5 with tripod, batteries, and tapes. Witness’s self-published training manual runs to over 80 pages and covers everything from video storytelling to use of B-roll. As pertinent are chapters on submitting materials to the U.N. and other human rights mechanisms.
To help each group maximize the potential of video, the non-profit also provides training for a full range of video production skills either at its offices in New York City or, if feasible, on site. Last year, Witness provided training for partners from Bolivia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Burma, Honduras, and the U.S.
Video of rights abuses captured by partners has been used as evidentiary material in national and regional courts, at war crimes tribunals, and before commissions. Video testimony adds a powerful argument to written submissions to the United Nations or other treaty bodies, says Caldwell. But for most Witness partners the pieces they put together reinforce the grassroots efforts of their organizations to educate their own communities.
With over 500 titles in its archive Witness can provide some powerful arguments for human rights advocacy. Getting the message out, however, remains the greatest challenge for all mediamakers, whether their work is fiction, or, as in the case of Witness partners, hard fact. "The most compelling documentaries in the world are powerless if no one can watch them," Caldwell says.
Caldwell, 35, a video activist from early on, was heading up her junior high school’s chapter of Amnesty International at age 12. She became a Witness partner herself during the making of Bought & Sold, a two-year undercover investigation of trafficking of women from Russia forced into prostitution. A graduate of Georgetown Law School, she became Executive Director at Witness in 1998.
Noting how the videotaped images of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles gave the incident impact and immediacy that words could not, Caldwell says: "Witness empowers people to record injustice as it happens and makes us all eyewitnesses to human rights violations."
For more information or to view partners’ work, visit Witness at their website, www.witness.org