You are here

ONU professor launches human rights project with global scope

For more Ohio Northern news, visit

Collaborative project to create searchable human rights database

Ohio Northern University law professor Jean-Marie Kamatali narrowly escaped death in the Rwandan genocide when he was a young attorney nearly 30 years ago. The horror and pain of what he and his family, friends and neighbors witnessed has haunted him ever since, compelling him to dedicate his academic career to furthering rule of law and human rights across the globe.

Now as the Ella A. and Ernest H. Fisher Professor in Law at ONU, Kamatali is immersed in an ambitious project connected to his calling. He is using the funding that comes with the prestigious endowed professorship to radically change the way government officials, NGOs, journalists, academic researchers and concerned citizens around the world can access and track information about human rights in 193 countries.

The project, which encompasses the creation of a searchable database and a web-based user interface, is a collaborative effort involving Kamatali, ONU technology professor Feng Jao, five ONU law students, one ONU undergraduate student, and 18 master of laws (LLM) students at the University of Notre Dame.

Additionally, the Human Rights Council at the United Nations is closely monitoring the project’s progress. Officials there have given it a stamp of approval, viewing it as a way to democratize the human rights reports the UN produces through its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

For Kamatali, the project is profoundly personal. It strikes at the heart of what’s discomfited him ever since the genocide: the power of dictators and denialism. The database, he explains, will be a tool for truth, offering easy access to moral and objective information on human rights.

“This is where the passion of what you believe in really matters,” he says, “because I can spend many hours outside of teaching, and I can reduce my sleeping hours, because I believe in the importance of this project and I need to show that it’s doable.”

 A calling emerges from the horror
This project, much like the trajectory of Kamatali’s career, has its roots in the Rwandan genocide.

In 1994, Kamatali was newly graduated from law school and living in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali when the assassination of Rwanda’s president unleashed the dark forces of ethnic hatred. To avoid the Hutu extremists who began roaming the streets and countryside, brutally killing and raping the Tutsi minority, Kamatali traveled by night and hid in the bushes by day. He eventually made it to Lake Kivu, where he swam over a mile to the safety of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and then continued his journey to South Africa and Austria.

While an incomprehensible number of Rwandans died at the hands of the militia or their own neighbors, Kamatali was one of the lucky few who lived to tell his story. “A million people are killed, so why not me?” he once questioned. “Perhaps God had a hand in it—anything else has no reason behind it.”

After the conflict ended, Kamatali returned to Rwanda to take the helm of the country’s only law school. Rwanda’s judicial system had been decimated by the genocide and civil war, and only a small number of attorneys and judges remained. Kamatali helped his country rebuild its justice system and begin the painful work of reconciliation and healing, which included bringing to trial those who committed the atrocities.

Survivorship placed a weight of responsibility on Kamatali’s shoulders that has never diminished. After settling in the U.S., he felt called to ensure that the horror of genocide would never occur in another country. His desire to help fledgling democracies build strong rule of law and democratic governance, which he believes is essential to peace and stability, is what ultimately led him to ONU.

While teaching law courses at the University of Notre Dame, Kamatali made connections to the Pettit College of Law when he came to campus as a guest speaker invited by the Black Law Student Association. ONU Law later approached him when establishing its LLM program, and Kamatali knew it would be an excellent fit.

Although now discontinued, the LLM program at ONU has an impressive legacy. It provided practical training in democratic processes and rule of law to students from fledgling democracies across the globe, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Kosovo, Malawi, Sri-Lanka, Zimbabwe and more.

The LLM program spawned ONU Law’s Center for Democratic Governance and Rule of Law, which Kamatali heads. Through the center, Kamatali has engaged in a variety of human rights projects, including grant-funded projects through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to strengthen the judicial system in Rwanda. 

Kamatali’s widely regarded expertise is sought in the U.S. and internationally. He’s served as an expert for the U.S. Department of Justice in cases on genocide and crimes against humanity, and he has conducted trainings on genocide and atrocity crimes prevention around the world on behalf of the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. He has also worked with the USAID in assisting countries in post-conflict legal and judicial reforms.

Creating a searchable human rights database
Kamatali devised the idea for his latest technology-based project because he saw a need for human rights reports to be searchable and readily accessible.

Starting in 2006, the United Nations began issuing reports on the status of human rights in 193 countries through a process called Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR reports take into account information provided by NGOs, nation states, and other entities to create a singular report that is objective and unbiased. In essence, the UN’s UPR report is a “definitive source of authority” on what’s really happening in each country, says Kamatali. Each individual country is reviewed every four and a half years.

While the UPR reports are available for viewing on the UN’s website, it’s not easy for an interested party to be able to track a country’s progress or decline in any particular area of human rights. Each country has several reports and each report is hundreds of pages in length. An interested party would need to pull up the relevant reports individually and browse through them in their entirety to find the information they were seeking.

Kamatali imagined a less cumbersome, user-friendly way to access the information. What if an interested party could type in search criteria and the appropriate content from each report would appear on the screen?

“Let’s say you are interested in looking at the situation of LGBTQ rights in the United States. You could type in these terms and see the relevant content from the first review, second review, and so forth,” he explains.

“I want to put the information out there,” he adds, where it can be quickly and easily reviewed “so people can see for themselves if there is progress or lack of progress” in a country or in a particular area of human rights.

A project of stages

For the first stage of the project—the creation of a searchable database—Kamatali enlisted the help of ONU’s Dr. Feng Jao, professor of technology. She was intrigued by the project and came on board when she realized the potential impact.

“It’s important work that he (Kamatali) is doing because it will give anyone who is curious about human rights the ability to easily find the information they seek,” she says.

Jao spent months designing and building a database framework for the raw data based on Kamatali’s input. Students from ONU Law and the LLM program at the University of Notre Dame are currently in the process of extracting relevant information from the UPR reports, categorizing and coding the content by subject area, so that the reports, which are housed on the UN’s website, will be searchable by the database.

With 193 countries, each with several lengthy UPR reports, the workload is daunting. And in fact, some in the human rights world have questioned whether it is possible to do, or if the database would work, says Kamatali.

 He explains that he’s starting with just a few countries to show proof of concept. “I completed two countries and now ONU students are completing 14 countries and Notre Dame students are completing 18 countries to begin with,” he says. “It’s important to show that yes, this can be done.”

Funds from the Ella A. and Ernest H. Fisher Professorship of Law are supporting the project this year, and Kamatali hopes to receive the prestigious endowed appointment for an additional two years to complete the early stages of this project.

After that, he says, he’ll seek outside grant funding for the continuation and maintenance of the project. The final product will be a user-friendly, web-based interface accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The UPR reports from all 193 countries will be searchable by the website, and as the UN releases new UPR reports, those will be categorized and added on an ongoing basis.

Doing his small bit

Kamatali hopes the final product with be a useful resource for truth seekers around the globe. Reflecting on his own experiences leading up to the Rwanda genocide, he realized how easy it is to rely on subjective information and deny reality.

 “Once you get into a bad situation, you move into denial,” he says. “I remember thinking ‘OK, things are bad, but I don’t want to call them bad because that would be scary.’ So, you tend to accept a fate, and you tend to accept things that should not be acceptable because the room is shrinking. When you are in that situation, you hear ‘well at least you are lucky because although you lost your freedom of speech, you still have other rights’ or ‘at least you are lucky, you just lost all your rights but still have your life.’ But when you get to that last stage, even your right to life loses its value, and they can take it whenever they want.”

The database, says Kamatali, will provide people with objective information that can counteract dictators. “It will allow people to see how things used to be, how they are now, and how the situation has been worsening or improving.”

He adds: “I am not going to say that this is going to change the world, but it will contribute a small to bit to creating something positive, something that serves the human rights community. And I think there is great benefit to coming out of the ivory tower and doing something that benefits the community.”

The Ella A. and Ernest H. Fisher Professorship in Law was established through an estate gift from Ella Fisher, JD 1921. Ella and her husband, Ernest Fisher, BSME 1915, were loyal alumni of ONU for many years and enjoyed successful lives and careers in Butler, Pennsylvania.