Interview: Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson talks E-team and atrocities taking place in Syria & Libya

Organisations like Human Rights Watch are essential, as they help expose atrocities taking place in war-torn countries. The organisation regularly runs a Human Rights Film festival and they are also supporting a screening of a documentary film called E-Team, a look at what has been happening in Syria and Libya. It was also the recipient of the cinematography award at Sundance in 2014.

Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch will be appearing with the international editor of SBS World News, Brian Thomson as part of a Q&A and screening tonight in Sydney. We caught up with Elaine before the special event at Dendy Opera Quays to talk about the film and the organisation.

Can you briefly introduce yourself? How long have you been working at Human Rights Watch and in what capacity?

My name is Elaine Pearson. I’m the Australia Director at Human Rights Watch. I’ve worked for Human Rights Watch for almost ten years now. Previously I was the Deputy Asia Director, based in New York, where I was supervising our work across Southeast Asia. About three and a half years ago, I returned to Australia to start up the Australia office. Prior to working for Human Rights Watch, I worked for several non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies around the world, particularly in Asia, such as in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Kathmandu. I also lived in London for three years working for Anti-Slavery International.

Can you briefly describe E-Team?

E-Team is a documentary that follows the lives of several of our researchers from our Emergencies Division. At Human Rights Watch we have a special rapid response team that we can mobilise very quickly in times of armed conflict or crisis. They often work in very dangerous and difficult conditions. In the case of E-Team, we follow Human Rights Watch researchers in Syria and Libya. E-Team also tells the stories of what these researchers’ lives are like outside of war zones, and so it gives a very good insight in to the work that Human Rights Watch does.

E-Team is a documentary about individuals who document war crimes. Why do you think people should see this film?

Sometimes when you hear the news about what is happening in Syria or other war zones, it’s easy to become despondent and think, well what can I do? It’s hard to relate to news stories when there’s story after story of misery and atrocities. I think what E-Team does, is tell the story in a very personal way that shows how individuals really can make a difference by going in to war zones, documenting crimes, and talking to victims and witnesses. The viewer can see how researchers’ information ends up getting used by global organisations, like Human Rights Watch, to protect human rights.

Are there things people can do to support E-Team and/or Human Rights Watch?

We are a privately funded organisation. We don’t accept money from governments as it would impact our independence. Consequently, we are always looking for new supporters to help us financially. The particular work the E-Team does, is expensive to send people in to war zones and unfortunately, given the current state of the world, we need to do that a lot.
People can also go to our website, www.hrw.org, and take a look at what current campaigns and initiatives we are running. We often rely on members of the public to help promote our work and to help raise awareness of these cases with their local Member of Parliament or local senator. This helps bring about change.

A lot of war crimes fail to get coverage in the mainstream media. What can we do to combat this issue?

Mainstream media is often particularly interested in domestic news. It can be difficult to relate to what’s happening in faraway conflict zones that seem very removed from our lives here in Australia. I think the best way to combat this is by telling the individual stories of people who are affected by armed conflict, how it affects families, mothers, fathers, kids. Telling these stories in a powerful way allows viewers to relate to the individual, and brings to light the human impact of these war crimes.
I think it is important not to concentrate only on negative stories, but rather to also listen to the stories of hope that emerge from these crises, that is, stories that convey the perseverance of the human spirit. People often ask me if I get depressed by the work that I do, but the reality is, when you meet people who have suffered greatly and they still have hope, then it energizes you and motivates you to want to tell their stories and prevent this from happening to anyone else.

Human Rights Watch has its own film festival. Are you involved in this? And can you tell us more about what Human Rights Watch does?

We find film is a very powerful medium to tell stories about human rights. The film festivals we have in New York, London, Toronto and San Diego are independent festivals for human rights films. In Sydney, we have a regular partnership with the Sydney Film Festival where we profile one human rights film every year and our Outreach Committee also hosts screenings throughout the year. With all our film festivals and screenings, we make sure that in addition to watching a human rights film, viewers have a chance to hear a discussion from a Human Rights Watch researcher who is an expert on that topic, and sometimes the director of the film or a leading actor. These kinds of deeper discussions allow viewers to think more about the film they have just watched and consider how they can get involved.

What was the most important thing you learned from being involved with this film and/or working at Human Rights Watch?

E-Team was filmed three years ago, and I think it’s interesting for me to re-watch it now because it demonstrates that the situation in Syria has in fact deteriorated even more. In some sense this film reiterated to me the immense human cost that ensues when the international community fails to act on crises.

Are you working on new projects at Human Rights Watch? Can you tell us more about it?

One of the new projects I’m working on at the moment for Human Rights Watch involves examining the treatment of people with disabilities here in Australia. More than half of the prison population in Australia has either a disability or severe mental health issue. Visiting prisons, talking to prisoners, guards and corrective services about the challenges that these people face has been very interesting, and allows us to consider what is the best way forward.

War atrocities are a huge social justice issue. Are there any other important causes you’d like to raise awareness about?

Human Rights Watch does not only work in war zones. While the Emergencies Division is a very vital part of our work, we also have researchers working on ninety countries around the world. We cover the whole spectrum of human rights issues. As well as our Emergencies Division, we also have a Women’s Rights Division and Children’s Division, and work on issues from counterterrorism to refugee rights. I think it’s important for people to realise that although what happens in war zones is at the extreme end of the spectrum, there are also very serious violations happening closer to home. Attacks on freedom of expression, police abuse, police torture and indeed in Australia our very own treatment of refugees who are transferred offshore and are living in horrible conditions on Nauru and Manus Island are examples of this.

E-Team screens with a special Q and A session in Sydney tonight, February 7th, and the film is also available to screen via Netflix. For more details on the screening please head here

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