In recent days, international peace monitors have arrived in Syria to evaluate whether the violent government crackdown there has ended. The monitors’ tour began inauspiciously when one leader declared that he saw “nothing frightening” in Homs, a city which has suffered devastating violence throughout the uprising. Which factors limit the success of human rights monitoring?
A 2004 article by Michael O’Flaherty, a former United Nations official who established human rights programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sierra Leone, outlines some of the core challenges facing effective monitoring. O’Flaherty begins by arguing that monitoring “is the basis for all other human rights work of a mission since programming of any kind needs to be based on reliable information.” But the questions surrounding the implementation of a monitoring program can be “extremely challenging.” Officials must decide whether they should monitor only the government, or non-state actors as well. They must decide how broad a mandate to adopt: Is the goal only to stop violence, or to protect economic, cultural, and political rights? Should the monitors focus on mapping patterns of abuse, or should they carefully investigate atrocities and prepare evidence for trials? Even if the monitors adopt a relatively narrow mission, they face further problems: Monitors often lack access, resources, and expertise, and they must work “in a manner that does not expose victims, witnesses or monitors to harm, or jeopardize programmes and operations.” And these challenges are not easily overcome when an official can walk through a city victimized by months of brutality and declare that “nothing frightening” was found.