If only we could take them there? We can, and we did.

by Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

How Virtual Reality technology is helping stop a human rights catastrophe

360/VR footage described in this article has been developed into a fully immersive film project, published by IRIN News.

From the frontlines of human rights violations to the corridors of global power.  Over the years I have frequently made the trip to New York after many days in the field documenting the grim toll of war crimes, crimes against humanity and mass displacement.  The aim?  To take Amnesty International’s findings to the United Nations and press for action to end the atrocities.  The responsibility?  To carry the stories of sorrow and survival shared by women, men and children in bombed-out villages and refugee camps and do them justice in conveying their call for support.

And how often I have thought, or even said: if only I could take you there; if only you could see and hear first-hand.  Then maybe it would make a difference.  Then maybe decisions would finally be made, by the Security Council, by UN officials and by key governments; decisions that could turn human rights catastrophes around.

I have certainly thought that after the several missions I have been part of to the Sudanese state of South Kordofan; a shamefully overlooked corner of the world where a staggering human rights and humanitarian crisis has now entered its sixth year and has killed and injured thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes (more than 100,000 of whom have made the impossible decision to seek safety as refugees across the border in war-torn South Sudan). 

I have been on the ground in the region three times.  I have heard the tales of suffering.  I have heard the anguished pleas for international action.  I have heard the pained belief that their lives must not matter to the international community.  And each time I have returned home and travelled to New York, and done the Security Council rounds, pressing for something more to be done.

It is not easy to reach the frontlines of this grim crisis in the Nuba Mountains.  It is isolated.  It is virtually unreachable when the rains come.  And a large swath of territory is sealed off from outside access by the Sudanese military, whose aircraft have unleashed an unrelenting campaign of targeted and indiscriminate aerial bombardment  that has made life a virtual hell for the civilian population.

If only I could take you there.

In September I was finally able to do just that, through the medium of evocative 360-degree virtual video footage that comes as close to “taking you there” as is possible without a long voyage.

Working with Amnesty colleagues and the amazing team from TFMdigital who had filmed and produced the footage, we did take diplomats from a number of countries who sit on the Security Council there, to the ground in South Kordofan.  They heard the bombers in the sky and saw the remains of burned out villages.  They saw what it is like for children to hide out in Nuba Mountain caves, waiting for Antonovs to pass by.  They heard the sorrow, the defiance and the urgent call for assistance.

It was certainly a new approach to high-level advocacy, waiting while diplomats and UN officials, eyes hidden from view by the goggles that were their personal video screens, lost themselves in sights and sounds halfway around the world.  Their heads weaved and bobbed and turned full circle, taking in all that there was to see, hear and understand.

And we had done it, we had taken them there.  That was clear from the subdued reaction as people removed their goggles and returned to a Manhattan skyscraper from the rocky, arid Sudanese landscape in which they had been immersed.

We had taken them there.  And we will take them there again and again.  Until there is real action.  Until the crisis ends.  Until rights are protected.  

Meeting with United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, New York, September 2016

Meeting with the new Non-Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, New York September 2016

360 Panorama image – UN General Assembly

Rotate phone, or click and drag with mouse to view the full panorama image.

If only the UN General Assembly could always be this much at my disposal!

In addition to the UN advocacy mission in New York, Amnesty International’s Regional Office in Africa, along with media partners TFMdigital presented the Virtual Human Rights Mission to members of the Bureau of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in Banjul, Gambia in November 2016.

“This was an innovative piece of work, a different and unique method of doing advocacy on conflict related issues. In Oct/Nov we privately briefed members of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERCW) on the situation in the Two Areas and impact on children’s rights. We showed them the VR/360 film which set the scene for an engaging discussion. We also made a formal submission requesting for a fact finding mission to the Two Areas. In December, the Committee informed us that based on our request, they had decided to conduct a fact finding mission to South Kordofan in March 2017. We think the VR/360 film helped inspire action by the ACERCW as they ‘saw’ for themselves and ‘felt’ the plight of people living in the Nuba Mountains”
– Nyagoah Tut, South Sudan campaigner, Amnesty International