Human rights ‘fact’ production and why it matters: Myanmar as a case in point


Human rights fact-finding, as conventionally understood, entails the objective determination of what transpired, who bears responsibility for it, and what actions are recommended in response. But how answers to these questions are reached rarely receives critical reflection, except in the form of informal conversations among practitioners. The neglect of these issues is unfortunate because close attention to the investigative decisions made, the field methods employed, the analytical practices utilized, and the advocacy strategies mobilized demonstrates both how ‘fact’ production occurs and why it matters to human rights ‘truth’ claims.

Myanmar is the geographic focus of my latest book, Crimes in Archival Form: Human Rights, Fact Production, and Myanmar (MacLean 2022); however, my arguments are far from limited to that country. Sociologist Howard Becker, in a recent work on the philosophy of knowledge, makes an important point that supports my contention: ‘The word accepted in accepted fact reminds us that the evidence has to convince someone of its validity, its weight, to become evidence’ (2017: 5). Persuasion, in other words, is an inescapable element of human rights documentation from the very start. Becker’s point is a useful reminder that the issue is not information per se that matters, but rather ‘what kind of information, produced by whom, and authorized by what symbolic and material powers that make it persuasive’ (Becker 2017: 5). Or, to restate the point more bluntly, as put forward by human rights philosopher Frédéric Mégret: ‘Facts are argumentative practices’ (2016: 38).

For these reasons, a process-oriented account of ‘fact’ production is needed to better illustrate the interplay between what happened in empirically verifiable terms and what is interpretatively said to have happened. The interplay, which can at occur at several different moments in the lifecycle of a human rights ‘fact’, consequently disrupts conventional understandings that sharply distinguish positivist approaches to human rights documentation as being inherently ‘true’ and constructivist ones as politically biased at best. Conversations about ‘fact’ production are thus urgent in our contemporary moment, given that perpetrators of large-scale human rights violations exploit misinformation, weaponize disinformation, and employ outright falsehoods, including deep fakes, to undermine the credibility of those who document abuses and demand accountability. 

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