Making human rights meaningful: documenting and protecting survivors of everyday torture and ill-treatment in low income countries


Working with local partners in Denmark, Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya, researchers have developed guidance and digital tools to report instances of torture and ill-treatment, and protect survivors from further harm.

What was the problem? 

In many countries, poor citizens are particularly vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment. Beatings, intimidation and corruption can be part of their everyday experience and they can also experience numerous obstacles in gaining accessing to justice.

The documentation of torture and ill-treatment can play a key role in improving survivors’ access to justice, but current methods assume an institutional capacity and political will that is often not available.

Protection is also a major issue as, without feeling safe from further threat, people who have experienced torture are less likely to come forward to share their experiences.

What did we do? 

The Torture Documentation Project is a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and DIGNITY: The Danish Institute Against Torture, along with the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, Social Science Baha in Nepal and IMLU Kenya. Led by Tobias Kelly, Professor of Political and Legal Anthropology, it is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development (DfID) as part of the joint Programme on Poverty Alleviation.

In seeking to compare the challenges faced by human rights organisations in three Low Income Countries, Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya, the researchers have explored how these organisations operate on the ground, finding that they often use multiple, informal techniques to reach, engage with and protect people living in low-income settlements.

A key strand of the research involves working on more inclusive documentation techniques in countries where torture and ill-treatment can be a common experience for poor people. Rather than focus on places of detention, this has meant trying to get human rights documentation techniques out into a broader range of places.

There are so many people who witness these violations but they are not able to report them. With over 20 million people in Kenya having a mobile phone, we decided to take advantage of this to increase the reporting and be able to establish the level of abuse.
Peter Kiama, Executive Director, IMLU, speaking about the development of the app.
What happened next? 

With an Impact Acceleration Award from the ESRC, the Torture Documentation Project was able to run a workshop for human rights practitioners in Geneva in May 2016. Together with other awareness-raising initiatives, such as opinion pieces in the national press, this stimulated debate on the prevalence of torture and ill-treatment among poor communities, and highlighted the need for interventions.

In conjunction with anti-torture NGOs, Dignity and Redress, the researchers were invited to give an extended brief to the UN Committee Against Torture, and have since been asked to submit policy guidelines on the protection of survivors. Their research findings have been used in an Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) shadow report to the UN Committee Against Torture, and they have been invited to brief the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and to facilitate and chair an online New Tactics dialogue engaging over 600 people from 81 countries.

The development of an App has met practitioners’ needs for a quick and effective ‘real time’ means of recording and forwarding basic information about events of torture and ill-treatment. The aim of the App is to allow a wider group of people to be involved in documentation practices. It is currently being used by 80 people and a number of cases have already been investigated as a result.

Coverage of the App in the Kenyan press has not only raised awareness of its development but also of the hidden truth about the relationship between torture and poverty. Further work is now underway to extend the research to other countries, including Morocco and the Philippines.

About the researcher(s)

Personal Chair of Political and Legal Anthropology

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Social Anthropology


  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • UK Department for International Development

Related study programmes