Articles, Human Rights, On Story

Making Access to Truth Convenient for Human Rights Advocates: Insights and Lessons from the Yellow Book

YB-Banner-en
This post originally appeared on December 10, 2014, on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog, an online publication of the Communication Leadership Graduate Program at the University of Washington.

On September 28, 2014, International Right to Know Day, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, in coordination with the National Security Archive, and The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, co-published The Yellow Book (El Libro Amarillo), the first document to be publicly released from the archives of El Salvador’s military intelligence. The 1980s-era document identifies almost 2,000 Salvadoran citizens considered “delinquent terrorists.” An estimated 43% of the names in the book were found to be victims of murder or extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, torture, detention or arrest.

Though compelling for many reasons—the document indicates the systematic planning of the Salvadoran government to terrorize and exterminate its own citizens—multiple attempts to partner with major news outlets in the US to cover the release of the document proved fruitless. As a result, the UWCHR decided to self-publish the document through its Unfinished Sentences’ website and associated social media channels, in addition to publication on the National Security Archive’s website.

However, the Unfinished Sentences project had less than one year of a public presence and as such, relatively scant visibility. The lack of media interest in the US was initially seen as a disappointment: a vital source of information for the numerous people still searching for the fate of their lost loved ones, information that would aid in the fight for truth, justice, and accountability in El Salvador, ran the risk of lingering into obscurity on the Unfinished Sentences website.

A Case Study for Overcoming the Communication Challenges Encountered by Nonprofits

The communication challenge posed by Yellow Book, however, isn’t unique to the UWCHR; rather, the Yellow Book represents the typical communication challenge of nonprofits: Distributing information seen as essential by one subset of the population often becomes judged as esoteric by another.

So how did the Yellow Book’s publication unfold?

In August, pre-release of the Yellow Book, the Unfinished Sentences website had received 166 visitors for a total of 284 views. However by October, the website received 6,643 visitors for a total of 141,976 page views–an increase of almost 4,000 percent in visitors and 50,000 percent increase in page views.

Page views Unfinished Sentences website

Publication of the Yellow Book and traditional and new media outreach efforts resulted in a significant jump in visits and page views for the Unfinished Sentences website.

Visitors have also downloaded the 266-page document close to 800 times and converted into additional forms of engagement.

Though the data might be seen as modest by many larger organizations, this is “viral” for an organization of the size and scope as the CHR. Most important, the quality of the connections trumps hard numbers. The story was covered in at least 27 articles and in 24 newspapers and blogs, including BBC Mundo and La Prensa Grafica.

Distribution Tactics to Help Ensure Success

Key tactics to help ensure the success of the Yellow Book included making key materials included leveraging essential partnerships and making key materials easy to share and disseminate.

Leveraging Essential Partnerships

Phil Neff, Unfinished Sentences Project Coordinator, commented on the approach used by the partnership, a combination of tried-and-true fundamentals and new media tactics: “We owe much of the Yellow Book success to essential partnerships in the US and abroad, with key organizations in El Salvador such as COPPES, the Committee of Former Political Prisoners…These groups organized a press conference the day of the release in San Salvador, which was attended by the major news outlets in El Salvador … El Faro, the premier online newspaper in El Salvador, also ran a piece one week in advance of the release, stimulating a great deal of interest.” A take action component, formed with COPPES, also provides another important way for viewers to become engaged after viewing the Yellow Book material.

Making Key Materials Easy to Share and Disseminate

On the digital front, The Unfinished Sentences team made the Yellow Book, and associated material, easy to share and disseminate. The book itself was scanned and placed on the Unfinished Sentences website as a Creative Commons PDF and as a Google Drive link, in addition to JPGs of all 266 pages, and a downloadable copy of the HRDAG analysis. Just days after the Yellow Book’s release, graduate students from a University in Mexico followed up with a network analysis of the relationships in the Yellow Book.

The Unfinished Sentences team also made a short video trailer about the release, in English and in Spanish, providing ways for blogs and news organizations to embed content. The Spanish version of the You Tube trailer has over 14,200 views, indicating the population most interested in the material, and the outcome of the Salvadoran partnerships. An example of the You Tube video composing the content of unaffiliated news organization Genteve can be found here.

Summing it Up: Four Key Strategic Insights from the Yellow Book Release

So what lessons can we glean from the release of the Yellow Book? Here are just a few:

-Relationships matter. Much of the success of the distribution came from contacts that were forged face-to-face. With this in mind, take the time to reach out to and physically meet strategic partners.

-Sometimes simpler is better. We now have so much access to affordable technology—HTML5, animation, dynamic maps, user behavior activated events, visualization of user generated content—I tend to get down in what a story could be or look like over just providing straightforward ways to access information. However, providing bits and pieces of shareable content remain important in the distribution effort. The YouTube video trailer, downloadable reports, and case examples, all provided ways for other organizations and individuals to engage with the Yellow Book content, facilitating story development.

-Speak to your base. It’s not always necessary to shape communications efforts to appeal to the widest audience possible. For example, the English version of the YouTube version only has 412 views compared to 14,200+ views in Spanish, indicating much higher success for the intended audience of Salvadorans and the greater human rights community.

-Remember for whom your efforts are meant. Media tactics aside, on this day, International Human Rights Day, it’s essential to note not only the compelling nature of this information itself, but how it is intrinsically tied to thousands of people in the world who seek any information for the whereabouts of missing loved ones, and who continue to fight for truth, justice, and accountability.

 I find the best insight to be gained from the words of Hector Recinos, a political prisoner profiled in the Yellow Book, in response to the research on the book. “The only thing we can do is seek justice. We are going to persist, we are stubbornly seeking answers. There is a lot to be done, this is only the beginning. But it’s good that things are coming to light.”

Gallery

Seeking Truth and Justice: A Photo Essay from the 6th Annual International Tribunal

A Santa Marta resident holds a candle at a candlelight vigil.

Since 2009, survivors of human rights violations committed during El Salvador’s civil war have gathered each year to share their stories and demand justice for the crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This year, the Tribunal was celebrated in the community of Santa Marta in the department of Cabañas, target of a series of brutal scorched earth operations by the military of El Salvador during the 1980s, including the massacre of Santa Cruz, in which some 200 fleeing civilians were killed.

Organized by the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University and the Network of Committees of War Victims, and presided by a panel of international jurists and human rights advocates, the International Restorative Justice Tribunal closed with a resolution delivering symbolic verdicts in response to each testimony, as well as recommendations calling on national and international authorities to ensure justice and reparations for grave human rights abuses.

Photo essay by Alex Montalvo. Translations by Ursula Mosqueira. A project for the Unfinished Sentences campaign.

Video

Seeking Truth, Justice, and Reparations in El Salvador

A mini-documentary highlighting the collaborative work between the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and partners in El Salvador for truth, justice and reparations in El Salvador. By Alex Montalvo, Revelriter Media.

Excerpted from The Center For Human Rights at the University of Washington

“Today, democratic governance in El Salvador is threatened by crises of crime and violence, driven by the longstanding problems of poverty and social exclusion but rendered a potent threat to governability by the widespread perception that the institutions of justice are inoperable. In a sad commentary on the dividends of purported peace, many Salvadorans report that things are worse today than they were during the 12-year civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives.

Despite the signing of peace accords that called for fundamental social and political reforms, no systematic reform of the justice sector has been undertaken, and those in power continue to enjoy the ability to intercede in justice proceedings in the interests of preserving their impunity. There has been no justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the Salvadoran civil war, nor any extensive investigation to establish truth or accountability in such cases. In this sense, the country’s fragile democracy is built on an untenable silence; until Salvadoran society addresses the systematic violations of human rights that rent asunder the social fabric for so many years, the country’s justice system will remain unable to confront the crimes of the past or present.

Now is a pivotal moment for a concerted push for truth, justice, and reparations in El Salvador, involving strategic coordination between Salvadoran victims’ organizations and international actors. The CHR, in collaboration with the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at the Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), is developing a project to apply important international justice precedents to the Salvadoran context, through the concerted application of national and international pressures for justice and a strengthening of grassroots movements within the country.”

Video

Seattle-ites Renew Fight for Justice in El Salvador’s Dirty Wars

The associated video (below) was produced in collaboration with Dacia Saenz for International Human Rights Day. Originally published in The Seattle Globalist on December 10, 2013.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador from 1980-1992.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador for the annual Victim’s Meeting (Encuentro de Victimas). Photo by Alex Montalvo

The solidarity that distinguished Seattle’s relationship to El Salvador in the 1980’s is reigniting once again. Last Thursday, representatives from 10 organizations met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Seattle in support of a renewed movement for justice in El Salvador.

The event, La Voz de la Justicia: Human Rights at a Critical Juncture in El Salvador, was organized through the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR)and the Social Justice Committee of St. Patrick’s Church. It brought together groups with a long history of supporting human rights throughout the region.

So why now, more than 20 years after the end of official hostilities in El Salvador?

In early September, the Attorney General’s office in El Salvador announced that for the first time in the country’s history, investigations would be opened into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime atrocities. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the constitutionality of the amnesty law.

A decision on the amnesty law is now expected literally any day,” says Angelina Godoy, Director of UWCHR. “These are things victims have been struggling to achieve for decades. There’s a sense of real possibility now, one that didn’t exist before.”

Photo of a man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reading a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador.

A man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador. The sombrero on the placard was worn by the son during his death. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

From 1980 to 1992, over 75,000 civilians died in the bloody armed conflict in El Salvador. Thousands more were brutally tortured or “disappeared.” Hostilities officially came to an end with peace accords in 1992, and as part of the peace process, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission was tasked with investigating wartime atrocities. Their investigation found approximately 85% of the violence occurred at the hands of the Salvadoran government.

But just five days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report in March, 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed an Amnesty Law that has since been used to effectively shield people in positions of power from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Salvadorans have been fighting for justice and reparations ever since.

The sad truth for Americans is that the armed conflict was heavily funded by our government. In an attempt to make El Salvador a leading example of Cold War policy, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran government upwards of $5 billion, despite awareness of government involvement in egregious human rights abuses.

But concerned citizens across the globe reacted strongly to these abuses and the subsequent involvement of the U.S. government.

Seattle, in particular, was front and center in the movement to stop the war. In 1983 voters passed the “Peace in Central America Initiative” which declared opposition to the United States support of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and established a Citizens’ Commission on Central America that included over twenty local organizations like El Centro de La Raza, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the University of Washington. Many Seattle parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, providing shelter to refugees from the Central American conflicts.

Today, the University of Washington is back to supporting human rights in the region. Since 2011, UWCHR and The Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in San Salvador have been collaborating on activities aimed at addressing core challenges to the rule of law in El Salvador.

Though there have been a lot of positive developments in El Salvador recently, there are also strong signs that those who oppose the justice movement are still willing to resort to criminality to protect themselves. At the end of September, 2013, the Catholic Church closed down one of the country’s main human rights organizations, leaving the victims in cases like the massacre at El Mozote suddenly without access to legal representation, and even without access to their own case files.

Even groups who search for missing children are being targeted. During a recent trip to El Salvador, we documented the emotional return of Marina Lopez (adopted name Marina Llewelyn) to Arcatao, El Salvador, for the first time since her childhood.

Marina had been taken from her family by the Salvadoran military, but was reunited through the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda, who work to discover the whereabouts of disappeared children and reunite them with surviving family members. Pro-Búsqueda conducted research for over two decades to find Marina.

Sadly, just three days after Marina’s reunion, Pro-Búsqueda was attacked and its offices firebombed, destroying some three-quarters of their files. These recent attacks are what prompted the recent “La Voz” event held at St. Patricks.

The City of Seattle is taking notice of local efforts for justice in El Salvador once again.Today, on International Human Rights Day, The UW Center for Human Rights is set to receive an award from the City. Godoy says she sees the award as recognition not just of the UWCHR, but of all the UW students, and the many people in El Salvador who have been involved in the effort.

“What makes our work so powerful is the way it’s rooted in partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles, folks like the committee of survivors we just met with in Arcatao, El Salvador,” Godoy said. “I wish those women and men could also step up to the podium and be recognized, for they’re really the ones who are teaching us about what human rights mean.”

For more information about human rights in El Salvador, and to demand a full investigation into the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, please visit www.unfinishedsentences.org.