Covering the UN Commission on Human Rights

Learning by seeing with your own eyes
10 May 2005

Sending reporters to the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has become almost routine for ICVolunteers. But the service is being constantly improved. This year, the volunteers received great compliments.

Every day for six weeks in March and April, ICV's volunteer reporters and editors worked at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Always enthusiastic and committed, they delivered reports on the daily meetings of the Commission as well as on numerous 'side events' organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on the protection of human rights. And what a job it was.

"I wrote reports on many different subjects and learned a lot," said Maria Lazarte, who holds a degree in international relations and anthropology from London and now lives in Geneva. "It was my first time as a volunteer reporter and I quite liked it." One of the things she noticed in particular was the difference in how the United Nations work ('political negotiations'), compared to NGOs whose experiences are firmly rooted in society. As Stefan Roesch noted as well: "It was great to see it with my own eyes instead of in the newspapers."

Both Maria and Stefan are thinking of becoming journalists, and they enjoyed the experience very much. As a third-year student studying international law, Stefan also discovered that reporting is not all that easy. "It took a lot of time, because I do some research into the subject before I write," he explained. At the same time, the reports had to be written quickly, to keep the online news center, ngoCHR.org, up to date as far as possible.

Stefan can rest assured: the volunteers received great compliments, from their editor Sarah Webborn for instance. She said that in general, the quality of the reports in English was very good. And from volunteer coordinator Philippe Dam of CONGO, the organization uniting NGOs affiliated to the UN, in collaboration with whom ICVolunteers and MCART set up the online news center. "Although many of them did not have a human rights background, the volunteers showed the same interest and commitment as our own interns and employees and brought complementary skills and interests as well," he said. "Together, we were able to provide very good coverage of the events. In fact, ngoCHR.org was the only website covering the Commission and the side events extensively, including both official statements of the Commission and a lot of complementary information. It is very important that all this information gets known outside the Palais the Nations."

Philippe was also very pleased with the large number of volunteers, which gave the reporters time to do separate interviews as well, and write reports in different languages (English, French and Spanish). The only thing Philippe would want to improve is the geographical background of the volunteers: it would be nice to have even more volunteers from Asia and Africa. With ICVolunteers expanding, that may be solved in the future.

Oh, and perhaps another thing to think about for next time: the volunteers would have liked more opportunities to meet their fellow volunteers and get to know each other. Their commitment often kept them rushing past each other, they said. The few parties that were organized, were great fun. Well, with pleasure -- ICVolunteers is always ready to improve! (CS)

Volunteer reporters bring a fresh perspective

Conference reporting over the years

ICVolunteers' conference reporters contribute an important element to a conference that many professional reporters have lost: tons of motivation and a fresh perspective. With nearly ten years of experience in bringing together non-profit organizations and volunteer reporters, ICVolunteers manages to satisfy both parties.

It all started with the 12th World AIDS Conference, in the late 90's, when a team of volunteer reporters worked hand in hand with InfoLink and MCART, in charge of the onsite reporting service, covering the many sessions of the event. That same partnership is now bringing ICV reporters together to cover the International Forum of Montreal in Canada at the end of May, focusing on global governance and democracy.

This year was the third time already that ICV sent volunteer reporters to the meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to work in partnership with the Conference of NGOs in Consultative relationship with the United Nations (CONGO).
Over the years, ICVolunteers and MCART have developed an effective reporting system and valuable experience in training volunteer reporters to write reports on conference sessions as well as articles and interviews. The volunteer reporters provide the contents for an on-line news service, which can serve as the basis for a final conference report in print or CD-ROM format as well.

Reporters do more than just provide texts, although that is their core activity. They fill in several important gaps. For instance, NGOs that want to attend the Commission on Human Rights cannot send delegates to every session, but still want to be informed. Some organizations do not even have the money to send anyone at all. The volunteer news service allows them to know what's going on despite those constraints.

Rik Panganiban, CONGO's Communications Coordinator, also points out that the volunteers commit to monitor entire sessions, something NGO staff who come with very specific aims often cannot do, let alone professional journalists. "We can really rely on the volunteers," Rik says. "In general, the volunteers are eager to gain experience, and they have a strong desire to be effective and follow the instructions very well."

Most volunteers are no experts in the subject matter of the conference at hand though, and sometimes their reports need to be edited a little. That also serves a purpose, according to Rik: "Some of our NGOs concentrate on field work or have limited experience with the Commission on Human Rights and need more background. Our challenge is always to serve both expert and non-expert audiences and as volunteers often have the same questions as non-experts, they are very helpful."

The fresh perspective of the volunteers actually are an important added value, points out Randy Schmieder, Director of MCART. "Professional journalists are limited by the constraints of their field. They cannot always report everything the way they see it for fear of losing their job. Volunteer reporters, by contrast, are free to report objectively. If you know a lot about a subject, it can make you biased." And when they are biased anyway (because it is very difficult not to be), the volunteers bring in a different perspective to the more experienced participants. "Volunteers help to produce a more balanced picture," says Rik.

Let us not forget that the reporters would not be volunteering but for the fact that they possess valuable skills and are extremely interested in the job: many are students for whom it is an excellent way to take a look behind the scenes of their future working field. Without their participation, the job would be impossible to do.

Randy of MCART: "I am always impressed with the professionalism of the volunteers. A little motivation goes a long ways." (VK/CS)

Conference-Reports

A program coordinated by ICVolunteers and MCART

www.conference-reports.org

Past news services:

  • IAVENews.org, August 2004, Barcelona, Spain
  • ngoCHR.org, since 2004, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 4th Intl Conference on Healthcare Resource Allocation for HIV/AIDS & Other Life-Threatening Illnesses, October 2000, Cairo, Egypt
  • Harm Reduction Conference, March 1999, Geneva, Suisse
  • 12th World AIDS Conference, July 1998, Geneva, Suisse
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