Witnessing as human rights praxis: remediating social responsibility

Peer reviewed: 
No, item is not peer reviewed.
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Human Rights Advocacy
Social Responsibility
Remediation of Technology
Ethical Engagement
Witness Discourses

This study undertakes a critical cultural analysis of recent discursive practices and effects of witnessing as a framework for human rights advocacy. By interrogating the concept of “witnessing,” my study uncovers various modalities of “witnessing,” in terms of practice and what agendas are fulfilled. Human rights organizations highlight injustice and attempt to engage their audiences as witnesses, through appeals to a shared membership in a moral, political, and global community. Drawing broadly on social justice principles, organizations strive to shape and enforce moral and political norms, their appeals targeting individuals: demanding attention, requesting support, and urging action. I argue that witnessing entails a praxis of engagement and social responsibility. Witnessing, however, faces an ontological crisis as it depends upon the dialogic relationship that exists between the victim and the viewer: the witness needs a responsive listener. Human rights organizations seek to establish the ethical and political “rightness” of their goals, aligned with truth and justice. My study explores their self-presentation and recruitment strategies, remediated via websites, which outline the challenges and necessities of witnessing. Pedagogical practices made possible through new media connect (I)-witnesses to audiences, making them witnesses to abuses. This exposure, knowledge and (vicarious) experience become a contemporary cultural practice linking witnessing to virtual activism. Through technology, witnessing transforms from an embodied experience to a virtual one. To ground inquiry into this technological re-mediation of human rights praxis, I analyzed three websites as exemplars of witnessing practices. Witness.org focuses on the importance of creating eyewitnesses to injustice by providing cameras and training to activists to capture evidence. IJM.org (International Justice Mission) works on behalf of Christian missions to seek legal remedies and provide services for victims, thereby heeding God’s command to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed. Witnessingproject.org is concerned with the effects, or “shocks,” individuals sustain from witnessing violence and violations. Through awareness, it offers a model to understand different witnessing positions, transforming passive witnessing to empowered action. Each of these sites illustrates differently significant ways to think about and enact witnessing and addresses the transformative potential of witnesses.

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School of Criminology - Simon Fraser University
Thesis type: 
Dissertation (Ph.D.)