Hoping to relieve some of the misery of the Israel-Palestine conflict, a New Zealand-based organisation and a Palestinian tech entrepreneur want to develop the first tool to accurately measure the area’s human rights.
Bassma Ali came to New Zealand in 2019 as part of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship when she met Anne-Marie Brook, co-founder of the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI).
Ali had co-founded GGateway to provide tech jobs for young people in Gaza, a company which featured in Time magazine as one solution to the high unemployment rate there.
When she returned home to Gaza from New Zealand, and was surrounded by intensifying conflict, she asked herself what she could do to help.
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Ali approached Brook, offering to help extend HRMI – which measures civil and political rights in 39 countries including Aotearoa – to a part of the world consigned to the too-hard basket at that point, in part due to the complexities of dealing with three governing authorities in the area.
Many people are surprised that the United Nations, an intergovernmental body, does not already gather key human rights data, Brook said.
“This is the sort of information that governments don’t collect themselves, and the UN don’t collect it because it’s very politically sensitive.
“Governments generally don’t want to tell you how many people have been abused by the police, for example, which qualifies as torture and ill-treatment, and even if they are willing to, there will be under-reporting.”
Ali hoped that measuring human rights accurately, and telling stories about the experiences of people in both Israel and Palestine, would make a difference to a very complex problem.
“The idea of this is to make people hear each other from other perspectives, because in the current situation with the current exchange of information between the two parties, we have been stuck in conflicts [with a] very miserable human rights status for both Palestinians and sometimes for Israelis as well,” Ali said.
“For too long it has been dehumanising for each other. Maybe more information from both parties really wanting to see peace happening will make things easier. Maybe it will not resolve 100%, but I think it’s a step on a thousand-mile journey that we should start.”
Ali said it was something that had not been done before, despite the huge impact the conflict was having on civilians who were unable to access resources like clean water, had their movement restricted, and were denied other human rights.
“This has caused illegal immigration, many casualties or many people passed away, or lives taken during these armed conflicts, and many disabilities in the community,” she said.
“Always the news [features] the politics, the conflicts, the casualties in the army or in the resistance in Palestine, but nobody talks about the human rights – why Palestinians are doing that, and why Israelis are doing that, how their lives are looking.
“There hasn’t been any organisation that identifies the framework and agrees with both Israelis and Palestinians working together on measuring human rights performance, so both parties’ perceptions are reflected on the same platform, based on qualitative data.”
With help from the Edmund Hillary Fellowship they were hoping to raise $38,000 through the Open Collective platform in the first step towards developing a survey specifically developed for the region. The first survey is likely to run in 2024, if all goes to plan.
“In the Israel-Palestine region you’ve got three governing authorities – you’ve got one in Israel, one in Gaza, one in the West Bank, so our normal survey, we can’t just roll it out in Palestine-Israel as we can in the rest of the world,” Brook said.
Ali would be Palestinian co-leader of the project, along with an Israeli co-lead, and the two would facilitate the survey’s design along with other representatives from both Palestine and Israel.
“The goal as with all our work is to produce really robust and nuanced data that people on both sides of the border, so to speak, can agree is accurately capturing the situation,” Brook said.
Launched about five years ago, HRMI tracks countries’ performances on 13 different rights as defined by international human rights law. It was gradually extending across the globe, and next year will cover more than half the world’s population, she said.
“One of the things we say is what gets measured gets improved, and I think the fact that HRMI is independent from governments is really critical,” Brook said.
“Everyone expresses surprise that the UN is not doing something like this. I think the UN is very well intentioned but they are an intergovernmental organisation, so that everything the UN does becomes very politicised.”