New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



forthcoming in THE FUTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS FACT-FINDING (Oxford: Philip Altson & Sarah Knuckey, eds., 2015)


Human rights advocates seek to find, interpret, and communicate facts about rights violations amidst some of the most complex social, economic, and political circumstances. To meet these challenges, fact-finders have developed research procedures that increasingly draw on a wide range of interdisciplinary tools and perspectives—with a notable expansion in the use of qualitative and quantitative methods from social science during recent years. Yet there is little discussion of investigative principles, research components, and methodological standards in the human rights field—a reality that often fuels tension and uncertainty over the extent to which social scientific research standards can and should inform evolving fact-finding conventions. As a result, fundamental questions about such standards remain unaddressed. To fill this gap, this chapter offers three core contributions. First, this chapter contextualizes the discussion by presenting data concerning the methods and conventions used by researchers at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the years 2000 and 2010. Second, this chapter interrogates the nature of social scientific inquiry and the degree of overlap between social science research and human rights fact-finding by comparing investigative principles, research components, and methodological standards. These comparisons reveal that social scientific research and human rights fact-finding share many common foundations and suggest that there is great potential for further convergence—especially in relation to methodological transparency. Third, drawing on some of the key distinctions between social science research and human rights fact-finding, this chapter highlights some of the methodological trade-offs that human rights investigators will likely confront when more directly considering social scientific strategies. This chapter ultimately cautions against the creation of a social science of human rights fact-finding, given the unique challenges and irreducible ethical commitments of human rights fact-finding. It instead calls for open and inclusive conversations about the most promising and appropriate standards for the evolving practice of human rights fact-finding.

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