Introducing the HPCR Advanced Practitioner’s Handbook on Commissions of Inquiry

Publication Date: 
Monday, April 27, 2015

A number of issue areas — civil-military coordination, security for field workers, and negotiation on the front lines of humanitarian action, for example — are high on the humanitarian sector’s research and policy agenda. Alongside these issues is the question of how researchers, practitioners, and trainers can most effectively collaborate to facilitate professional exchanges geared toward learning lessons from past practice. A number of forces countervail the drive to build professional unity within the sector: e.g., scarce resources, the distinct organizational identities of different humanitarian organizations, and the notion that many contexts in which humanitarians operate are sui generis. In light of these factors, as the humanitarian sector engages in a continual process of professionalization, how can it carry forward lessons learned through professional networks that transcend institutional boundaries?

The related domain of monitoring reporting, and fact-finding (MRF) faces similar challenges. Along with the humanitarian sector, the field of MRF has proliferated in recent decades. Indeed, commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions, monitoring missions, panels of experts, and mapping exercises have become an increasingly prominent component of international, regional, and national responses to allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Additionally, the professional struggles of MRF practitioners — including commissioners, investigators, and legal experts — parallel those of many humanitarian practitioners. Specifically, MRF practitioners have articulated the desirability of more training opportunities; the need to further develop a pool of experienced, capable professionals ready to be deployed to the field; and the importance of devising practical tools of methodological guidance based on lessons learned from past practice.

In response to this professional demand, the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University has recently published the HPCR Advanced Practitioner’s Handbook on Commissions of Inquiry. As the lead drafter of the Handbook and the lead researcher on this project, I collaborated with the HPCR Group of Professionals on Monitoring, Reporting, and Fact-finding — a team of high-level MRF practitioners that HPCR organized — on conducting an extensive assessment of past MRF practice and translating the research findings into a user-friendly format intended to be useful to practitioners in the field. The Group includes commissioners (including two of the commissioners — Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and Karen AbuZayd — currently leading the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria), as well as investigators and legal experts (such as Luc Cote, who led investigations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kyrgyzstan, and Timor-Leste).

The initial phase of HPCR’s project entailed conducting research geared toward gaining a bird’s eye view of the various challenges facing the field. This assessment aimed to fill a research gap. While existing literature at that time focused mostly on individual case studies — for example, on investigations conducted in Libya and Sri Lanka — no analysis had been undertaken of the field of MRF as a whole. As part of these efforts in this preliminary research phase, HPCR constructed an on-line database that aggregates mandates and reports for over fifty MRF missions implemented since the end of World War II.

To build on this foundational research, HPCR worked with the Group of Professionals to select fifteen missions that would reflect the diversity of recent MRF practice in terms of the mandating body that created the mission, the context examined, and the information gathering methodology adopted by the mission. HPCR then collaborated with the Group to conduct an analytical assessment of the methodological approaches of these missions, in order to inform the development of a practical handbook that would assist practitioners on future missions in addressing these issues. This assessment included a desk analysis of each of these missions’ mandates and reports, as well as relevant secondary literature, in addition to extensive interviews that HPCR conducted with practitioners who served on these missions in various capacities.

As a result, the final form and content of the Handbook reflects not only the experiences of the wide array of practitioners interviewed, but also the specific perspectives gleaned through professional exchange among the Group of Professionals. In short, the project was a practitioner-led research exercise that aimed to link academic research with the professional needs of practitioners working in the field.

The methodology employed to prepare the Handbook offers one model for analyzing past experiences of professionals engaged in activities related to civilian protection. The overarching challenge is to learn how best to harness such efforts in a coordinated manner to meaningfully support the continued development of a community of practice. As the humanitarian sector pushes forward with its approach to various challenging policy issues being faced, it would be worth taking a step back to consider how one can most successfully analyze and promote change regarding different issues of policy, methodology, and professionalization. This question has no easy answer and is worthy of further research attention.


SIMON MUREU's picture

 And  how can I get  this Handbook>

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