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BIPR | The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Improving International Human Rights Law Fact-Finding
The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Improving International Human Rights Law Fact-Finding

April 21, 2022 - 18:30

Obiora C. Okafor, Johns Hopkins University SAIS, US

Event Recap

After a brief introduction by Professor Pennicino, Professor Okafor began the seminar with an overview of international human rights fact-finding (IHRFF). He described fact-finding as method of ascertaining facts and determining the causes and consequences of events. Activity in the field has increased exponentially over the past several decades, but little has changed in terms of methods and best practices since the 1960s. Okafor said that IHRFF can be undertaken by a range of actors, including UN bodies like the Human Rights Council (HRC), regional organizations like the Council of Europe, NGOs like Amnesty International, and states themselves such as the US State Department. There are different types of IHRFF, but Okafor said he is focused on investigative IHRFF — as opposed to complaint-based or indirect IHRFF — as it is conducted by the UN, NGOs, or a single country. This kind of work is important because it can help identify the perpetrators and victims of human rights abuses, and it can have consequences in the form of military action, economic sanctions, the withdrawal of development aid, and more.

Okafor then spoke about his own research on IHRFF. Through his study of IHRFF reports from the UN and other NGOs on cases on the African continent from within the past 5 years, he identified several issues with how IHRFF is conducted today. One is the lack of historical perspective in fact-finding investigations. For instance, investigations on land reform rarely account for colonial era dispossessions, meaning that officials ignore the "full cycle" of abuse and distort the overall narrative. Another issue with IHRFF is how investigations tend to be too short. UN IHRFF missions, for instance, last one week on average, so they tend to miss critical information and nuance about a given situation. To improve IHRFF missions, Okafor says that researchers need to spend more time on the ground to better understand complex social realities. They should incorporate methods from critical ethnology to better understand the meaning and practices of small social spaces and identify the "full cycle" of abuse. Okafor argues that IHRFF and critical ethnology should become, in a sense, "academic cousins," so that the former can better capture the intricacies and nuances of a situation.

After concluding his remarks, Okafor answered a number of questions from students and faculty. In response to a question from Professor Appleton, Okafor said that recent efforts to investigate atrocities committed in Ukraine do qualify as human rights fact-finding, and in a response to a question from SAIS student Daniel Lubin, Okafor discussed how fact-finding intersects with the legal system.

Full Audio:

The Human Trafficking Initiative Series – Improving International Human Rights Law Fact-Finding
Human Trafficking Initiative Series

Supported by the Associazione di cultura e di studio italo-americana Luciano Finelli Friends of the Johns Hopkins University
hosted by Professor Sara Pennicino

Obiora C. Okafor
Johns Hopkins University SAIS, US

For further information on the Human Trafficking Initiative you can visit our website or contact


Professor Obiora C. Okafor is the Edward B. Burling Chair in International Law and Institutions at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. He is also the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity and a former Chairperson of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. He has held the York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, Toronto, Canada, and the Gani Fawehinmi Distinguished Chair in Human Rights Law at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. He has also served as a Visiting Professor at a number of universities and institutes around the world. He was conferred the Award of Academic Excellence of the Canadian Association of Law Teachers in 2010 and the Gold Medal for Exceptional Research and Major Contributions to Jurisprudence of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in 2013. He is the author or co-editor of seven books and over one hundred and twenty articles and other scholarly pieces.
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