The process of collecting and producing documentation on disappearances

Documenting disappearances requires the collection of information and the production of documentation.

The collection process often involves physical data gathering and interviews. This process poses significant challenges depending on context. In situations of ongoing conflict, access to victims, families, and witnesses is difficult and ensuring their safety as well as the safety of the interviewer is of utmost concern. In situations of older conflicts, it is difficult to find and access victims, families, and witnesses because so much time has passed, and often there is no evidence that can be collected. How have you addressed these challenges?

In other situations, data gathering involves access to other sources, such as official records, video, images, satellite images, and many more. What information sources have you used in documenting disappearances and what advice can you share on accessing and using information from these sources?

In this discussion thread, participants will share their experiences, challenges and good practices related to the process of collecting and producing documentation on disappearances.

in my opinion, the most importance thing what will we do with the documents
i am from libya where many cases documented but the there is no police and judicial system is dysfunctional
now many victims believed there is no interest to documented what they were facing
especially as it painful and humiliating

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Hi, Baset. Your comment about the challenges, including personal sacrifices and harm, associated with pursuing complaints and collecting documentation is important; it is a real concern. In other conflict or post-conflict settings, pursuing accountability for abuses has often been a long, long process, and collecting evidence has been important to that struggle. Documentation can help prosecutions in other countries or at the international level. (See, for example, this summary of efforts related to Syria: When national judicial systems are dysfunctional, there may be other possibilities for recording violations and pursuing accountability at the international level. Libya is subject to oversight from two regional human rights bodies and numerous United Nations human rights bodies; some offer the possibility of submitting a complaint about a specific human rights violation. See this factsheet for a brief overview:

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Hi Lisa
thank you very much for your response.
I agree with you about the importance of documentation,but my discussion about the conditions that encourage documentation process.
In my country now any perpetrators has been accountable until now.
This encouraged expanding the cycle of violence and turns the victims to perpetrators because they lost hope in justice.
Regarding international mechanisms needs a long time and succeed in specific countries . The best example Somalia there is civil war for decades no one has been convicted .


In her presentation (at 32:38), @ozlem describes four types of sources you can use to document disappearances:

  1. previous work and research on enforced disappearances of both national and international bodies
  2. legal documents: investigation files, verdicts of national and international bodies (for example, here is a list of resolutions from the UN Human Rights Council on disappearances:
  3. media monitoring: published and digital media sources
  4. survivors’ testimonies

What types of sources have you used, and how do you access them? What are the common challenges for each type of source, and how have these challenges been addressed?

Thank you! Kristin

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For me ( Seraphina from Korea’s experiences) , the fact-finding and advocacy are all war of document & record collection. I was not so much difficult to hard to connect with victims and their family. All the network in the civil society has been operated. however the most terrible condition was confidential data box by govt, even now. And also i feel how we re-organize the all the collected documentation and all different type of data. Specially I found the people who had so much important date or memory for fact-finding, they did not know (although the organization) how they had to keep and mange the data collection as well. One of my suggestion is how each organization or individuals create the category of data box in the pc, I guess all of us are probably different to make a category of materials,
Sometimes we learn each other though document management although we have different experiences.
Even in the local level people (researcher manager campaigners etc) did not know how they have to keep the all the different type of data. I was hard to recognize who are the create of docu or it was real or not. It means it was hard to adopt of evidence for fact-finding and advocacy… So it might to good to develop of data collection box with categorized
as example…

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In this recorded presentation, Tamar Hayrikyan of Técnicas Rudas and Centro Diocesano de Derechos Humanos Fray Juán de Larios (Mexico) shares frameworks on strategic research and context analysis, and examples of what these frameworks look like when applied to documenting disappearances.

Please share your questions below, and your experience, tools, tactics and frameworks for applying strategic research and context analysis to your documentation work!

A summary of this presentation is available in Spanish here:

Hi Seraphina, thanks so much for sharing some background on your documentation work and some of the challenges you are facing.

Yes, creating categories to organise information is a lot of work but is so important to enable people find the information they are looking for. Over many years and a lot of feedback from our partners, HURIDOCS put together lists of categories so that practitioners like you don’t have to start from nothing. We call these lists of categories Micro-thesauri: a tool for documenting human rights violations. Here are some examples of lists:

  • Violations Typology
  • Rights Typology
  • Types of Acts
  • Methods of Violence
  • International Instruments
  • Counting Units
  • Civil Status
  • Education
  • Occupations (ILO Categories)
  • Physical Descriptors
  • They are currently 59 microthesauri, all available for download from Google Spreadsheets, and are available in English, French, Spanish , Portugese, Russian, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Turkish, Estonian, and Georgian. Our first and main microthesaurus is called HURIDOCS Index Terms has 305 human rights terms and is available in Korean! Maybe that would be helpful to you.

    Eager to hear from others!


    Sorry but there is many wrongs in Arabic translation

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    Thank you Tamar for this informative presentation. I do definitely believe that context analysis is very important for understanding the phenomenon of enforced disappearances and develop strategies accordingly.

    What I would like to ask is kind of a follow up question to Kristin’s at the very end. For what purposes were your strategic research results being used mostly up until now? I would be pleased to learn more specific actions deriving from general goals. And are Fray Juan and FUUNDEC-FUNDEM the only organisations benefiting from your research?

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    Thanks for letting us know! We’d be happy to receive any improvements to these translations that people can offer.

    Hi everyone

    At the Human Rights Program we have worked with two sources of information for the process of documenting clandestine graves in Mexico: 1) Media reports from national and local press and; 2) official information obtained through freedom of information requests. We have faced challenges for the documentation of both sources, but also advantages. This is how we have obtained and worked with them:

    Media reports: First we have to consider that documenting clandestine graves from the media means that we are registering a specific form of social production of information. This means that it is conditioned by certain elements such as the level of coercion towards the media, the levels of violence in some entities and others. Therefore, we are reporting only a fraction of the whole universe of clandestine graves in the country. Nevertheless, we have gathered information from most of the states in Mexico.

    Our press reports were obtained using a media monitoring site called Eficiencia Informativa. This is a public site that allows anyone to collect information from the national and local media in a variety of topics, in different years. We have used 5 main categories in order to obtain the press reports about clandestine graves. These categories in Spanish are: 1) Fosas clandestinas; 2) Fosas cuerpos; 3) Fosa ejecutado; 4) Masacre fosa y; 5) Fosa común. The site showed us all of the reports that had these keywords from 2007 till 2016. This has allowed us to collect more than 3,000 reports about clandestine graves in Mexico.

    The reports that were incorporated into our database were broken down into 17 categories of analysis. For our study called Violencia y terror. Hallazgos sobre fosas clandestinas (, those analyzed corresponded to the state and municipality in which they were located, the year, the number of graves, bodies and/or remains (fragments) exhumed. It must be noted that, according to our methodology for examination of media archives, a clandestine grave had to fulfill the following characteristics: a) contain the bodies or remains of one or more person; b) that the bodies or remains were described by the reports as buried or semi-buried; c) that the legality of the site where the grave was found was in doubt and; d) that they were discovered by an individual and/or authority.

    It is also important to consider that some reports that talked about the same event showed different figures regarding the number of bodies or graves. As a consequence, we decided to count the lowest figures, given the impossibility of confirming each case through an adequate forensic investigation. This means that we can only give estimations about the magnitude when we use media reports.

    Other aspects that are important lie on the precision of the municipality or locality that notes report; how may days did the media talked about the same event and how many journals talked about it (if it its reported in different days with different journals it increases the probability that the event did happened); and if the note was signed by the author or not.

    Official Information: The information of clandestine graves has been obtained through freedom of information requests directed to the Procuraduría General de la República (Federal Attorney General’s Office, PGR), the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Ministry of Defense, SEDENA), and the state prosecutors’ offices for the 32 states of Mexico. These requests were made by the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos (CMDPDH) and then shared to us.

    The first challenge lies on the fact that not all of the institutions provided information about clandestine graves. For example, from the 32 state prosecutor’s offices we only received data from 12 of them. The latter means that the rest do not have registers of clandestine graves (even though we have reports from the media), or they do not want to share the information. Both possibilities are grave and are an example of the problems we are facing in Mexico regarding access of information.

    The second challenge lies on the fact that the information is shared in different ways. For example, the PGR provided the number of clandestine graves found, the number of bodies exhumed and identified, and the state and municipality in which they were located. For its part, the SEDENA provided information exclusively about the number of clandestine graves found, and the state and municipality in which they were located. The number of bodies exhumed and identified was not given. The same inconsistencies are observed with the state prosecutor´s offices (we have also noticed sub-register problems in the figures).

    The third challenge is that these institutions do not share their info with each other. This means that each has different figures. The problem is that there has not been an effort from the federal government to centralize this data and have a unique register confirming each of the cases.

    This is why it is important to document clandestine graves findings with different sources of information. The media may observe findings that have not been observed by the official institutions and vice versa. The other option is that we can have reports of the same event from different sources. This is important in order to identify the magnitude of the phenomenon.

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    Thanks for your input and question, Ozlem. In general terms, one of the main uses we have for strategic research is advocacy with international bodies to bring attention to the issues and create pressure for action. In addition, often the results of strategic research are simply the decisions that an organization makes - to pursue a certain legal strategy, or to focus lobbying and advocacy efforts on one institution or individual over another, or to dig deeper on one aspect of an issue over another, or to focus on a particular region for gathering evidence, etc. Strategic research (such as actor maps and power analysis) can also be an important input for security risk assessments.

    Regarding your second question, yes, we do work with other organizations, and are always eager to work with more, so please do reach out if you have ideas to collaborate!


    Thank you very much Jorge for your comment about your methodology. Your decision to count the lowest figures when you came up with different figures from the media sources regarding the number of bodies and graves caught my attention. Wouldn’t it be possible to note different figures by referring to their sources? It seemed to me as having a risk of undercounting the figures.

    Besides, it might also make sense to rank the sources - especially the media sources - by their credibility not only to define the locality but for any kind of information.

    As a last point, your comment made me think about the potential sources of information for defining mass graves. In the case of disappearances, families of the disappeared (whom I defined as the most crucial first hand information providers in my presentation) might not be a relevant source to define a mass grave, as they mostly don’t have any information regarding the whereabouts of the disappeared. I would like to ask you the process that you ended up with these two sources of information; which other potential sources that you thought of, or is there any?

    Thank you very much again for taking your time to give such detailed information for the participants.

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    translation errors from English to Arabic are :_
    3-Rights Typology from 1 to 170
    4-Types of Acts from 1 to 534
    10-Occupations (ILO Categories) from 1 to 152

    Hi Ozlem!

    Yes, in the report we also consider the highest figures presented by the media. Most of the analysis is based on the lowest figures, but we were aware of the risk of undercounting as you mentioned, so we didn´t exclude the highest figures. For example, for the period that was analyzed with information by the media (2009-2014) we established that 390 clandestine graves were found in 23 states of Mexico. The figure would increase to 651 graves when we contemplate the highest figures.

    I also agree with the importance of ranking the sources. The monitoring site that we use presents media sources with high credibility for the majority of the cases, but you can also take into account other indicators. For example, how many sources the note is citing or if the note was signed by the author.

    In Mexico the families are also a crucial source of information. I would also add independent forensic teams that are working in some of the regions of the country or even some priests that are in contact with the groups of families. We want to collaborate with these actors, especially for our statistical model.


    Hi all.
    I’ve read your replies and this is what I can share you and want to ask you.
    At the Observatory of Disappearances we work on people’s disappearances in Mexico, mainly on the committed since 2005 to the date (area and period that includes the one studied at the Human Rights Program of our colleagues of the Ibero @jorge.ruiz).
    In Mexico we are in a ongoing conflict situation, so it’s quite difficult to get access to information for many political, administrative and technical reasons. The main governmental source (RNPED, Registro Nacional de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidas), created in 2011, has plenty of fails (for example, they actualise it uploading new cases every 4 or six months, erasing the cases of people who “appeared”; it only contains the cases which have been denounced, when in Mexico there’s a trend of not denouncing human rights violations and crimes to the authorities because of fear and distrust, so they’re sub-registered, and it contains very little data about each case)… Thus, RNPED isn’t a complete and reliable source.
    At the Observatory, we’ve been working with NGO’ or relatives’ organisations data about the disappeared and the disappearance act, provided by their relatives (which are secondary victims’ testimonies), and also with media information. We analyse that data, and complement our analysis with previous research work and human rights organisations’ reports. Lately we’ve reached a limit of our first source… most of the relatives’ organisations haven’t documented systematically their cases and their partners’, so we started a documenting workshop with a group of relatives so they can learn how to do it themselves.
    I agree that we have to register the information the most systematically and standardised way (we’ve been trying to do so) (sera87, @kjantin), so it can be shared with others and used for pursuing justice in the short, middle and long term). Although, I think we’ve to save and try to process all kinds of testimonies about the facts that couldn’t get into our data bases, as qualitative information, for truth, memory and long term justice objectives.
    On the other side, like baset says about Libya, in Mexico national judicial system remains being dysfunctional (in spite of the new general law about disappearance), and people is losing hope -or lost ir already- on processing responsible people of disappearances, and they just focus on looking for their loved ones disappeared, increasingly without hoping authorities will do it (as jorge.ruiz refers about independent forensic teams of relatives, which literally search themselves the remains of their disappeared).
    I personally think that documentation has to make sense to the relatives. We have to make it directly useful for their own short and middle term purposes, and if necessary, useful to their direct exercise of their rights as victims (like the searching of remains and the social dissemination of disappearing information). So we would have to create information formats easy to use for them. In parallel, continue with our processing, analysing human rights-academic work.
    Thank you all.
    (Now I’m going to see Técnicas Rudas’ presentation! :v:t6:)


    This is the final draft of our Nuevo León’ report… (i’m afraid there’s only a spanish version):