Just Access

Episode 11 - What is it like to investigate human rights violations with Donatella Rovera?

April 22, 2024 Just Access Season 2
Episode 11 - What is it like to investigate human rights violations with Donatella Rovera?
Just Access
More Info
Just Access
Episode 11 - What is it like to investigate human rights violations with Donatella Rovera?
Apr 22, 2024 Season 2
Just Access

In this episode, we have the huge pleasure of speaking to Donatella Rovera, who is Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International. Her focus has primarily been the Middle East, and she has investigated abuses in Gaza, Syria, Iraq under the control of the Islamic State, and numerous other trouble spots. Her work routinely puts her in a position of significant personal risk.  Listen to this episode to find out from Donatella about how she plans, conducts, and thinks about investigating human rights violations in conflict zones.

Enjoy listening!

Don’t forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media! 

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we have the huge pleasure of speaking to Donatella Rovera, who is Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International. Her focus has primarily been the Middle East, and she has investigated abuses in Gaza, Syria, Iraq under the control of the Islamic State, and numerous other trouble spots. Her work routinely puts her in a position of significant personal risk.  Listen to this episode to find out from Donatella about how she plans, conducts, and thinks about investigating human rights violations in conflict zones.

Enjoy listening!

Don’t forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media! 

Support the Show.

Donatella Rovera 


[00:00:03] Dr Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, including legal experts, academics, and human rights advocates from all walks of life. Through these conversations, we explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. Our goal is to educate the wider public and raise awareness about human rights. After all, our motto is Everyone can be a human rights defender. 

[00:00:30] I'm Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access, and in this episode, I have the huge pleasure of speaking to Donatella Rovera, who is Senior Crisis Response Advisor at Amnesty International. Her beat has primarily been the Middle East, and she has investigated abuses in Gaza, Syria, Iraq under the control of the Islamic State, and numerous other trouble spots. Her work routinely puts her in a position of significant personal risk. 

[00:00:57] Listen to this episode to find out from Donatella about how [00:01:00] she plans, conducts, and thinks about investigating human rights violations in conflict zones.

[00:01:07] Interview - Part 1 

[00:01:07] Dr Miranda Melcher: So to start us off, for those of us in the human rights sector, you are someone that doesn't really need much of an introduction, but some of our listeners may not be so familiar with our work, or your work in particular. It's been said that most of us are young, we might run away from danger, but you, maybe from the beginning even, ran towards it.

[00:01:44] Can you take us back to the beginning? Do you know what led you into this line of work? Was there a particular moment or was it sort of something that grew over time?

[00:01:53] Donatella Rovera: I think that from early on, I was interested in establishing facts and verifying [00:02:00] and being sure of what I said and other people said. And at the same time being interested in fighting injustice in some way. And that's what led me to start to do human rights work.

[00:02:16] And as I started doing human rights work, I found myself working on countries that were in the midst of conflict or where a conflict broke out as I was starting to work on those countries. And then from having worked on one conflict to another, that's what led me to specialize in that kind of investigations - in investigating human rights abuses, violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law, the commission of war crimes and atrocity crimes in situations of armed conflict. 

[00:02:54] Dr Miranda Melcher: Given that kind of initial interest in verifying information and obviously how that's developed to where you are [00:03:00] now, can you tell us a bit about why it's so important to conduct on the ground investigation in these sorts of places?

[00:03:08] Donatella Rovera: There's several reasons. The first one and the most important one it's just because in situations of armed conflict the situation is dynamic and attack that is carried out today can destroy the evidence of another attack that was carried out yesterday. A bombardment today can destroy the proof, the evidence of a war crime or another atrocity crime that was committed yesterday by the same party or by a different party.

[00:03:37] That's just what happens in conflict. If we look at some of the conflicts that are happening now, whether they are conflicts that have been going on for a few months or some years, Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, and if we look at some specific areas, they look very different today than they [00:04:00] did some months ago.

[00:04:01] Or in the case of conflicts that have been going on for longer, a year ago, two years ago and so collecting that evidence is urgent. There are other reasons as well, of course, the freshness of the memory especially in situations where, people are living through traumatic events, they're being displaced, they're having their homes destroyed, they're seeing things that they never imagined they might see and all of that means that the sooner the testimonies can be collected, the better.

[00:04:38] And also in this situation, there tends to be the development of what can be categorized as collective narrative. Where over time memories fade and it may become in some cases difficult for people to make the difference between what they have actually seen and what they have heard [00:05:00] or how they have heard other people describe the events, the difference between perception and reality.

[00:05:06] For all of those reasons, if at all possible, the sooner the better, bearing in mind that what one can do immediately may need to be complemented by much longer term work. But collecting evidence before it's destroyed is certainly in my view, the primary reason for trying to do that as soon as possible.

[00:05:34] Dr Miranda Melcher: That makes a lot of sense. And could you tell us a bit about what that looks like day to day, both in terms of when you're in the field, in the conflict zone, having these discussions, and then once you've collected it, you're back, presumably in an office somewhere trying to sort through the information.

[00:05:50] Can you take us through maybe what each of those days looks like? 

[00:05:54] Donatella Rovera: I think that if you'd asked that question 20, 15, even 10 years ago, the answer would [00:06:00] have been a bit different in that the work that I was able to do while in the field was much more different than the work that I do when I'm out of the field situation. Now with better connectivity some of the work which some years ago may have needed to wait until I got back to base, I can also do while I'm in the field. 

[00:06:25] To give you a concrete example, one of the things that I do in the field in situations of armed conflict is look for remnants of the munitions of the weapons used by the different parties. It's often crucial to establish a number of issues, including who has carried out the attack because often different parties use different types of weapons and munitions and it can help to determine whether an attack was lawful [00:07:00] or not. 

[00:07:00] I mean, that's just one of the things, but having pieces, fragments that remained or unexploded munitions perhaps 15 years ago, I would just have to wait until I got back before I could, if I didn't recognize it myself, but even if I do, we always submit that to military experts to double check what it is, that often had to wait until I was back at base because, connectivity wasn't good enough and so. Now I can from where I'm standing, I can take a photo and WhatsApp it to someone who can identify perhaps immediately or very quickly. I can contact colleagues who specialize, for example, in interrogating satellite imagery. I can send back material that people in the field give me, whether it's photographs or [00:08:00] video and have colleagues geolocate that, check certain details all things that are still not necessarily possible everywhere because oftentimes I work in places where connectivity is generally poor or it has been cut off because of the conflict, but in many places it is possible.

[00:08:24] So some of that, what you do in the field versus what you may do back at base, that difference is not so sharp anymore. In the same way, I can be back at base and be speaking to people, to survivors, to people who've been injured, to relatives of people who've been killed, to eyewitnesses in places where I cannot go at a given time.

[00:08:52] I can be speaking to them via secure communications, which again, was not [00:09:00] necessarily possible some years ago. It's still not possible to do that everywhere. But like a couple of years ago, I was in Ukraine for several months, two of the reports that I researched, I wrote them while I was in Ukraine, they were published while I was in Ukraine.

[00:09:17] It's not always a case of, not anymore, of going to the field, collecting all the information and then waiting to process that information once back. It's a lot more fluid now.

[00:09:31] Dr Miranda Melcher: Yeah, that's really interesting. Thank you for the examples and helping us understand how it's changed. Can we talk a little bit about the process of the thinking or the decision making? Unfortunately, we are in a situation with many conflicts around the world. How do you decide where to go when? If, say, a new conflict breaks out and you start to hear things from people, how do you decide where and when to go? 

[00:09:58] Donatella Rovera: Well, there's some [00:10:00] criterias that are really deciding factor. One, is it possible to go? Is it possible to go and work? Because it may be possible to go, but the situation may be such that it's not possible to work without interference from one or more of the parties involved in the conflict, for example.

[00:10:21] And therefore it's not possible to work safely, not just for myself and my colleagues, but also for the people that we would have to interact with on the ground. And so, you know, is it physically possible to get there? And is it possible to work reasonably safely for ourselves and for the people we interact with?

[00:10:43] Those are really the two main factors to consider alongside, of course, the gravity of the situation and so on and so forth. But those are really the two main deciding factors. There have been cases where right now, for example, it is [00:11:00] impossible to go to Gaza because the Israeli authorities have not allowed human rights investigators into Gaza for years, for more than 10 years.

[00:11:10] They used to allow journalists since the beginning of this conflict in October, journalists are also not allowed in other than the few journalists to embed with the Israeli army. They are restricting humanitarian actors going in. But in this kind of situation, it doesn't matter however much we would want to go , we simply can't. And there are other situations where, we could possibly go in but we wouldn't be able to work to do the work that we need to do in a safe enough mode especially for those who remain behind.

[00:11:47] Cause I leave after a while, but people remain behind. And if the risk that those people would incur by having interacted with people by myself, that has to be factored in.[00:12:00] 

[00:12:01] Dr Miranda Melcher: In fact, that was exactly the next thing I'd like to ask you to tell us more about. Once you've made the decision about where you can go, how do you determine what to look for? What you're looking for? And this crucial question of who to work with.

[00:12:16] Donatella Rovera: Ultimately, we mostly work by ourselves. Sometime there are people who work with us, people who may be local drivers translators, if it happens to be a place where I don't speak the language. But the bulk of the people that I would be interacting with would be survivors, eyewitnesses, relatives of victims, people who have been themselves affected in one way or another, people who provide services to the community, medical personnel, and so on and so forth. And that's many people. And we never go in cold. That is to say, when I go to a [00:13:00] place. It's generally a place where I've worked before, could be many years before and places where I already have contacts, other colleagues have contacts.

[00:13:12] So we don't start from zero and we do a lot of preparation before we go in, of course. And so in the course of that preparation it becomes clear, on the one hand what's possible and what isn't, whether, for example, geographically where it's possible to go. Very often in situation of conflict, it's not possible to go everywhere for a number of different reasons and we go through as an organization, not just me as an individual, but in cooperation with a number of colleagues, as well as consulting with other actors who may be working in the same place to try and make the best possible risk assessment. 

[00:13:58] And once all of [00:14:00] that is done on the basis that it may, and are very often has to change at the moment's notice. Whatever plan is made can change. It often does. I may have a plan for tomorrow but something happens and whatever was planned for tomorrow cannot happen or this afternoon if it's morning. So it's a constant review of both what I was able to do at the end of the day or throughout the day, what I was able to do and were the decisions that I took from a security perspective and others the right one s and that framework work again tomorrow, or are changes occurring that are making a repeat of what I was able to do today, not possible tomorrow.

[00:14:50] Because situations change, the behavior of the different actors change and so it's a constant reviewing and that needs to be done with a lot of [00:15:00] humility. I'm not Rambo. None of us are. So it's not about, what you can get away with from a security perspective. Sometimes you survive or you don't, it's due to luck. But you have to try and foresee every possible scenario while accepting that you may not be able to foresee every possible scenario.

[00:15:27] But at least you try and foresee and prepare for as many possible scenarios as you can think of and to have, a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, that works not just for yourself, because again, the issue isn't just how can I get out of that situation, but how can I get out of that situation without endangering other people who may be with me or who may be staying behind and so on.

[00:15:53] And so a lot of time and energy is spent on that process.

[00:15:58] Dr Miranda Melcher: Yeah, absolutely. Given [00:16:00] how many factors there are to consider. But obviously some of your time and energy also goes into verifying the information you are looking for and have found. Can you maybe tell us a bit more about why verification is so crucial and how you go about doing that?

[00:16:16] Donatella Rovera: Verifying the information is the key. If the information is not verified, if you can't verify something, the information is of very little use. It's unusable. You know, you don't throw anything away and it might become usable because you may not be able to verify today, but it may be possible to verify it, who knows, next week, in a year's time.

[00:16:41] But so far as you can't verify, you can't use that information. It's as simple as that. And there are many reasons why the information that one receives initially maybe 100 percent true, 100 [00:17:00] percent wrong and everything in between. Because people may give us wrong information because they remember things differently.

[00:17:12] Again, especially in situation where people are existing outside of their normal daily situation. They are not living in their homes anymore because they've been forced to flee. They have undergone some very traumatic events. They have seen terrible things. They have lost family members. They've themselves been injured and so many other reason why, testimonies, obviously without any disrespect to anybody who gives testimony, but testimonies are testimonies and they can be 100 percent true, 100 percent wrong, and everything in between and everything has to be verified. A piece of, fragment of ammunition that is in a given [00:18:00] place we need to verify, is that really what hit this particular house at a particular time?

[00:18:07] Or is it a piece of ammunition that hit this place in a different situation, in a different attack, three weeks ago instead of yesterday? Is it something that somebody put there deliberately to mislead us? Is the reason why somebody is telling something that is patently not true or which may seem true but turns out not to be true.

[00:18:34] Is it just because they don't remember correctly or is it because they want to mislead us? 

[00:18:41] We need to triangulate, we need to corroborate by talking to as many people as possible who may have knowledge from different perspective of the same incident and to look for material evidence, if it's possible, and to then [00:19:00] confront that with material that may be available on open sources.

[00:19:05] It may be something that somebody posted on social media, or it may be some photographs or video that somebody took some photographs or filmed something, didn't post it, didn't give it to anyone but it exists somewhere. Satellite imagery can be so useful when it's available. It's available much more than it was years ago, but it's still not always available or there might be clouds and you can't see what you need to see.

[00:19:35] So it's so many pieces to a puzzle and sometimes you get almost to the complete puzzle, but you can't establish what happened and however frustrating that is having spent a lot of time and resources and energy, you've got to be humble enough to say I don't know, I can't verify at this [00:20:00] stage.

[00:20:01] Dr Miranda Melcher: Yeah, so I guess that's a good question. How certain do you have to be of information before you can use it? Is the goal a hundred percent?

[00:20:09] Donatella Rovera: In some cases, 100 percent is possible, in other cases not, and that's why we then have to be very honest with what we've been able to verify and the extent to which we've been able to verify when we go public. If we do, obviously we endeavor to verify as much as possible, we often come from those who we think are responsible and could share information and take into account what they provide if they provide any information.

[00:20:42] And oftentimes we will say we've done X, Y, Z, we've tried to verify in every possible way, we've asked the concerned parties, they have not responded or they have not provided what we've asked them to provide, bearing in mind all [00:21:00] this, all that we've been able to collect and to verify makes us believe that it is very probable that this is what happened.

[00:21:09] And if somebody has any proof that it didn't, please come forward. But so we have to be very clear when we're not a hundred percent sure to say that and to explain why.

[00:21:20] Dr Miranda Melcher: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You've spoken a bit so far about the ways in which this investigative work, both the collecting of information and the verifying and the processing, has changed over the course of the last 10 to 15 years, but that something still, we can't still have to be done in person.

[00:21:37] Do you see that changing further as, for example, more places gain more connectivity? What might the future of these kinds of investigations look like? Will there still be a big on the ground component, do you think?

[00:21:51] Donatella Rovera: The ground component, if it's possible, you can't do better than that. Remote [00:22:00] doesn't substitute on the ground, people who claim that it does often it's because they can't do on the ground. The work that we can do remotely has increased enormously of the past decade or, decade and a half.

[00:22:14] There is no doubt about it. And whereas before what was not available, you didn't know. Now we need to look, we must look at any information that is available in whatever shape or form, social media, private WhatsApp group, other private social media communications where information is shared, satellite imagery which is becoming more affordable and there is more of it because there are more satellites up there.

[00:22:54] All of that, when it wasn't available we could look at it now, whenever it is, [00:23:00] whatever is available, we need to look at it. But if it's possible to be present on the ground ultimately, whatever photograph, whatever video clip can only ever show you what that particular camera, however wide angle it was, it could show you, it could capture and it's never the full thing because of the limitation of the equipment or because of what the person who captured that particular footage or took that particular photo wanted to capture or was able to capture for whatever reason. All of this has to be borne in mind.

[00:23:38] The ability to speak to someone face to face, the body language, kind of relation of trust, that one can also build much more easily in person than at a distance. All of that is precious and can make a huge difference between what people are [00:24:00] willing to share with someone who they have the opportunity to see face to face, speak and build some sort of relation of trust versus a voice at the end of the phone or, like a video conversation and for us to understand the circumstances around that conversation, the circumstances in which the person, the people we speak to are existing.

[00:24:27] The challenges that they may be facing, the pressures that they may be under, the fear that they may be experiencing, all of that is very important. And it is much more difficult to do at a distance. There is no doubt about that. Similarly, when examining a place to be able to establish whether a certain piece of material was put there or something was removed or whether a certain scene was tampered with it is undoubtedly more [00:25:00] difficult to make those judgments when you are seeing things at a distance, maybe through a video of the place that, you know that somebody was able to take. The reality is that there are places where we cannot physically go and all we have is the way of working remotely.

[00:25:21] And undoubtedly we today have infinitely better tools than we had a decade ago, more. And that's a game changer in many situations. And that's a game changer also for the investigations when we can be present on the ground. So it's not a question of one or the other. If it's possible, it's both.

[00:25:45] But even when it's possible to be present on the ground the remote part of the investigation is hugely important, crucial. I think that, that's why it's important to do [00:26:00] both if one can.

[00:26:01] Dr Miranda Melcher: Yeah. It's absolutely fascinating to have you put us in those circumstances in a lot of ways and understand the different things that are changing, but how they still very much go together. So thank you for taking us through that and giving us kind of something to think about as we see these technologies develop. 

[00:26:17] Outro

[00:26:17] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Donatella. To listeners, thank you for being with us as well. In our next episode, we'll continue this conversation with Donatella, discussing her insights from her work across various conflict areas and her thoughts on improving access to justice. You're definitely going to want to tune in for the continuation of the conversation, so make sure you hit the follow button so you don't miss a single episode.

[00:26:47] If you're enjoying the Just Access podcast, please tell your friends, like us and share us on social media. Please do also rate us and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. We love to hear what you think, and we really [00:27:00] do read every single review. It helps us get the word out about the podcast, and we're eager to hear from our listeners.

[00:27:07] In fact, you can also get in touch with us directly with comments, reflections, or suggestions for people or topics to cover. You can email us at just access. de, that's podcast at just-access. de. See you next time!