Witness (human rights group)

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WITNESS is a human rights non-profit organization based out of Brooklyn, NY.[1][2] Its mission is to partner with on-the-ground organizations to create videos that document human rights violations and their consequences, in order to further public engagement, policy change, and justice.[3] Witness has partnered with more than 300 human rights groups in over 80 countries.[4]


Mission statement[edit]

WITNESS uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. WITNESS empowers people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change. [5]


Witness was founded in 1992 by Peter Gabriel, along with the help of Human Rights First (then known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and its founding executive director Michael Posner.

Musician and activist Peter Gabriel was influenced by his experience using a Sony Handycam, one of the first small camcorders marketed to consumers, to record the stories he heard while traveling with Amnesty International’s 1988 Human Rights Now! Tour. He decided to found Witness after the 1991 police brutality incident involving Rodney King, Jr., in which a bystander's video of King's beating by the Los Angeles police was critical both in raising awareness and in generating widespread public attention.[6] To Gabriel, this video demonstrated the power of video to capture the world’s attention and viscerally communicate human rights abuses.

WITNESS was founded the next year, in 1992, with a one million dollar seed grant from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and a partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First).[5] In 2001, WITNESS became an independent nonprofit organization. In 2012, WITNESS released a 20 year timeline about the organization.

In 2004, WITNESS started hosting a benefit dinner and concert called "Focus for Change." The event brings together video activists, funders, and celebrities to share the work of WITNESS' partners.[7][8][9]

In 2009, WITNESS initiated a focused use of social media as a part of its outreach for video for change.[10] Since 2009, the organization started reporting social media statistics in the organization’s performance reports.[11][12]

In 2012, WITNESS launched a joint project with Storyful and Youtube called the Human Rights Channel.[13][14][15][16][17]

WITNESS has worked in over 80 countries to advance human rights through the use of video for change. Today, WITNESS has a staff[18] of 30 and a $3.9 million budget.


WITNESS has worked with over 300 organizations in over 80 countries since its founding.[4] Campaigns have resulted in measurable impact.[19] Campaigns include:

Cameras Everywhere[edit]

Witness partnered with the Guardian Project to begin the Cameras Everywhere program with the goal of ensuring that human rights videos are created and distributed safely, effectively, and ethically.[20] The focus of the Cameras Everywhere project is SecureSmartCam, a program that runs on smartphones to ensure the safety and authenticity of human rights videos.[21] The safety of activists is the goal of ObscuraCam, which detects and blurs faces in photos and videos.[22][23] Video support is under development as of March 2012.[24] The authenticity of the video is the goal of InformaCam, which automatically records and encrypts information such as the GPS coordinates of the camera during filming, and nearby wireless signals.[25][26] The "Cameras Everywhere Report" lays out a call to technology companies, investors, policymakers and civil society to work to use technology for the benefit of human rights.[27]


Witness has developed training kits to help activists and videographers use video effectively and safely to support their advocacy campaigns.[28]

They have released the Witness Video for Change Book, a document intended to teach human rights, environmental, and social justice organizations how to use video most effectively in campaigns.[29]

They have also created a Advocacy Planning Toolkit, an interactive step-by-step guide to help advocates and organizations develop a strategic video advocacy plan.[30] Witness' training materials are available in numerous languages, including Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian.

Child Soldiers[edit]

2007: WITNESS teamed with AJEDI-Ka/PES to create a video to oppose the recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The partnership sought to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes that that led to the 2007 war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. The resulting film, “A Duty to Protect,”[31] was screened at a high-level panel discussion at U.N. Headquarters in November 2007 following the arrest by the ICC of a second DRC warlord for the use of child soldiers. Witness partnered with Amnesty International to develop a companion curriculum for the film.

2009: The trial against Mr. Dyilo begun in January 2009. Three more warlords have been arrested and are currently awaiting trial at the ICC for the use of child soldiers in the DRC.

2012: On March 14, 2012, Thomas Lubanga was convicted[32] of using child soldiers - a war crime.

Gender-based violence[edit]

Femicide in Mexico: In March 2009, Mexico’s Attorney General and Minister of Interior committed to personally follow-up on the cases of Neyra Cervantes, who was brutally murdered in 2003, and her cousin, David Meza who spent three years in jail after being tortured into confessing to her murder. This agreement was the outcome of a meeting between Peter Gabriel, actor Diego Luna, Jaguares’ Saúl Hernández, Patricia Cervantes (Neyra’s mother) and Mexico’s President Calderón, asking him to end feminicide in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Mexico. Since the meeting, WITNESS partner Comisión Mexicana has met twice with government officials, who are reviewing the status of the proceedings of Neyra/David’s cases and studying the list of priority policies related to ending feminicide. Neyra’s story is the focus of the film, “Dual Injustice,[33]”” co-produced by WITNESS and Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humano (CMDPDH). The video was part of a successful international WITNESS campaign in 2006 calling for Miguel David Meza’s release and a further investigation into Neyra’s case to ensure that justice will be served for all families suffering similar fates.

Discrimination against Akhdam Women in Yemen: In 2009, Witness partnered with the Sisters Arab Forum (SAF) to produce a documentary called “Breaking the Silence,” about the plight of Akhdam women in Yemen. The video is currently banned in Yemen, and both Witness and SAF are working to repeal the ban.[34]

Middle East and North Africa transitions[edit]

Witness launched a program in 2011 to support the transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring. This program includes: a partnership with the Egyptian Democratic Adademy (EDA); hosting a human rights convening in the region to identify immediate needs; identifying, disseminating and translating innovative tools and tactics; and developing new apps for human rights in the region.[35]


Following screenings to decision-makers in Chechnya and globally in 2009, Human Rights Center Memorial achieved significant advocacy success by securing the Chechen government’s funding for rebuilding homes and other infrastructure in the Zumsoy, Chechnya.

Human trafficking[edit]

Modern-Day Slavery in Brazil: In 2007, “Bound by Promises,[36]” a film about modern-day slavery in rural Brazil, was screened before the Brazilian Congress’ Human Rights Commission, and has proven instrumental in getting the Mobile Inspection Squads to resume the investigation of claims made by runaway slaves. “Bound by Promises” has also led to greater investments in programs for workers.

Human Sex Trafficking in the United States: In 2012, WITNESS co-produced a 21 minute advocacy video called “What I Have Been Through Is Not Who I Am," with ECPAT-USA.[37][38][39] The short documentary tells the story of Katrina, a child who was trafficked for sex in the United States.

Elder abuse[edit]

Elder Abuse in the United States of America: In 2009, WITNESS and National Council on Aging (NCOA) produced An Age for Justice: Confronting Elder Abuse in America, a film providing proof of the financial, emotional and physical abuse that up to an estimated five million older Americans face every year.[40]

Climate change[edit]

Witness joined the “iMatter Trust Campaign” with Our Children’s Trust, the iMatter Campaign and students from Montana State University’s MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking to co-produce a series of videos highlighting how climate change and government inaction is affecting the everyday lives of our youth.[41]

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)[edit]

2007: Footage from Burma Issues was used to buttress a critical BBC Newsnight item that criticized the Labor administration in the UK for its minimal levels of funding to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Burma. This broadcast helped push the UK government to conduct an official review that, in July 2007, recommended a four-fold increase in aid to IDPs in Burma.

The Hub: Human Rights Media Center[edit]

Witness launched the Hub in 2007 as a single point for users to upload human rights video, that might not be uploadable elsewhere. Because those needs have been fulfilled by other sources, the Hub has now become an archive for the content that had previously been uploaded.[42][43][44]

Outside ratings[edit]

Charity Navigator awards WITNESS 3 out of 4 stars overall, and 4 out of 4 stars on “Accountability and Transparency”.[2]

The Global Journal rated WITNESS #83 of the top 100 non-governmental organizations in 2012.[45]

The Global Journal rated WITNESS #52 of the top 100 non-governmental organizations in 2013.[46]


  1. ^ GuideStar:Amex-Organization Report
  2. ^ a b Charity Navigator Rating - WITNESS
  3. ^ Peter Gabriel fights injustice with video | Video on TED.com
  4. ^ a b About Us | witness.org
  5. ^ a b Human Rights Videos | witness.org
  6. ^ kingvideo
  7. ^ WITNESS' 20th Anniversary Benefit | witness.org
  8. ^ http://www.tonic.com/post/music-legend-peter-gabriel-celebrates-20-years-as-a-witness/
  9. ^ Peter Gabriel Performs At WITNESS Benefit
  10. ^ http://nonprofitorgs.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/book-interview-nonprofit-example-of-social-media-excellence-witness/ [Book Interview] Nonprofit Example of Social Media Excellence: WITNESS | Nonprofit Tech 2.0 Blog :: A Social Media Guide for Nonprofits]
  11. ^ http://www.witness.org/sites/default/files/downloads/witness-dashboard-evaluation-2010.pdf
  12. ^ http://www.witness.org/sites/default/files/downloads/updated_2011_dashboard_7.25.2012.pdf
  13. ^ YouTube launches new Human Rights channel with Witness.org and Storyful - Boing Boing
  14. ^ YouTube Launches Human Rights Channel
  15. ^ YouTube Introduces Human Rights Channel - NPQ - Nonprofit Quarterly
  16. ^ YouTube Human Rights Channel Curator: Witness, New York - Peace and Collaborative Development Network
  17. ^ Can Google’s New ‘Human Rights’ Channel Make A Difference? | TPM Idea Lab
  18. ^ Staff Profiles | witness.org
  19. ^ Telling it like it shoots
  20. ^ New App: ObscuraCam Automatically Detects, Blurs Faces And Strips Metadata From Your Photos
  21. ^ The Secure Smart Camera App for Human Rights Video | WITNESS Blog
  22. ^ ObscuraCam: Secure Smart Camera
  23. ^ ObscuraCam | An App to Pixelate Your Photos | Los Angeles | LA | Application
  24. ^ [1][dead link]
  25. ^ Introducing InformaCam
  26. ^ InformaCam, a new plugin for video activists in the works | activist archivists
  27. ^ Cameras Everywhere Report 2011 - Press Release | witness.org
  28. ^ How To | witness.org
  29. ^ Video For Change | witness.org
  30. ^ http://videoplan.witness.org/
  31. ^ A Duty to Protect: Child Soldiers in the DRC | witness.org
  32. ^ Public Google+ Hangout On The Lubanga Trial Guilty Verdict Announced By The ICC | witness.org
  33. ^ Torture and Feminicide in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua | witness.org
  34. ^ Sisters Arab Forum | witness.org
  35. ^ Middle East and North Africa Program | witness.org
  36. ^ Bound By Promises: Contemporary Slavery in Rural Brazil | witness.org
  37. ^ WITNESS Video Project | ECPAT USA
  38. ^ End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-USA (ECPAT-USA) | witness.org
  39. ^ WITNESS/ECPAT Film Is Nearly Done | ECPAT USA
  40. ^ National Council on Aging | witness.org
  41. ^ TRUST Campaign | witness.org
  42. ^ Cinereach » Witness: The Hub
  43. ^ Peter Gabriel’s YouTube for Human Rights: The Hub | Fast Company | Business + Innovation
  44. ^ [2][dead link]
  45. ^ #83 - WITNESS | The Global Journal
  46. ^ "Top 100 NGOs | The Global Journal". theglobaljournal.net. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 

External links[edit]