Updated by Faso Aishath
- Setting up an interview provides an opportunity to establish rapport with the witness.
- Documentary and other evidence should be requested from the witness when the interview is being arranged.
- The safety of those taking part in the interview should always be the main consideration.
- Maintaining confidentiality is an issue that some witness will request during their initial contact with the investigations team.
It is important to proceed with care when making contact with a potential witness. It is an opportunity to build trust and rapport with the person, as well as respond to any concerns or fears they may hold. In all cases, the interviewer should explain who they are, the mandate of the NHRI and the issue that is being investigated.
When the interview is set up, specific requests should be made for anything the interviewee may have, or may have access to, that might be relevant to the investigation. That might include documents, e-mails, recorded voicemails, photographs or video footage.
Investigators should also ensure consider issues related to gender when organising the interview. For example, this might be relevant when choosing a location where the interview will take place. It might also be important for women and girls, especially those who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence, to have a support person during and after the interview.
Confidentiality for some interviewees, especially whistleblowers, is a critical issue. In fact, some witnesses will only agree to be interviewed if their identity is kept secret.
Expectations must be managed up front. Witnesses should never be misled, as this will put the reputation of the investigator and the NHRI at risk. Let the person know that there are limits to the protection that can be offered.
It is unlikely that complete control can be maintained over the entire process. However, there are a number of things the NHRI can do to promote confidentiality, such as setting up channels of communication that are less likely to be compromised and choosing a private location for a face-to-face interview.
REQUESTS TO HAVE SOMEONE PRESENT AT THE INTERVIEW
Some interviewees will request to have someone with them at the interview, commonly a lawyer or a family member. The investigator should use common sense as to whether or not this request is met. The key consideration is whether or not it will have a negative impact on the integrity of the investigation.
Some questions to consider are:
- Is the interviewee being coerced to have that person present?
- Is there a clear and genuine need for that person to be present?
- Is the person also likely to be a witness in the investigation?
- If the person is a lawyer, do they represent other people involved in the investigation or just this interviewee?
- Will the presence of that person have a “chilling” effect on what the interviewee might say?
- Does the interviewee have a statutory or other right to have someone present?
In many circumstances, having a support person present is a very reasonable request, particularly with vulnerable witnesses. However, it can pose difficulties if the only support person available is also a witness or someone whom the interviewer would rather not have present. A judgment call may have to be made as to whether or not to allow that person to be present.
If another person is allowed to attend the interview, it should be made clear that the person is there to support the interviewee and not to give evidence or answer questions on behalf of the witness.
CHOOSING A LOCATION FOR THE INTERVIEW
The most important factor to consider when setting up a face-to-face interview is the safety of the investigator and interviewee. NHRIs may work in conflict zones. They can often deal with people who are angry, scared or frustrated. Basic precautions must be taken in these situations, such as ensuring that there are always two investigators present at an interview.
Other factors to consider when choosing an interview location include:
- Convenience to all involved; this may involve travelling to interview a witness, rather than requiring them to come to the NHRI.
- Where the interviewee will feel most comfortable; as this helps an interviewee to be more open and forthcoming (attention should be paid to gender and culture when making this choice)
- Cost; to ensure that the NHRI is responsible in its use of public money in undertaking the investigation
- Perception; the interviewer needs to consider how the interviewee will feel about the venue chosen for the interview
- Confidentiality; a location should be chosen that makes it less likely that confidentiality will be compromised, especially when interviewing a whistleblower
- Scene; going back to the location where the event under investigation took place can be helpful but not if there is the possibility of re-traumatising the interviewee.
In some cases, there may be no choice about where an interview is conducted, such as when the interviewee is held in a detention facility or is a patient in a hospital. If there is reason to believe that the interview is being monitored then the investigator should act accordingly.
FIND OUT MORE
Chapters 6-8, Undertaking Effective Investigations: A Guide for National Human Rights Institutions (APF, revised 2018)