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Damage Caused by WikiLeaks to Human Rights Advocacy

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The legacy of WikiLeaks on the practice of diplomacy is already clear: not much at all. Leaving aside the field day the media and civil rights groups had in bringing down the curtains on the secrets of the giant United States foreign policy machinery; in actuality, there was hardly anything that was not known by observers and the learned public. But, yes, we did have some juicy verbatim quotes about and from world leaders here and there.

All the leaks did was show that the US was more consistent in the way it pursued foreign policy than the conspirators had wanted to believe. While there have been some serious audits at the State Department and a host of other foreign ministries on how information should be gathered and sent back to base, and how and by whom it should be handled and consumed, the essential nature of diplomacy has not changed.

However, when the remaining documents were 'leaked' from WikiLeaks without deleting the names of sources, WikiLeaks tasted its own bitter medicine and risked the lives of hundreds of human rights advocates, researchers, lawyers and activists who live in precarious situations. Without much media attention, human rights activists found themselves facing intimidation and questioning and many sleepless nights.

Myself included, many professional researchers who spend their time conducting field research and documenting human rights issues around the world went through documents with the fear of seeing their names cited in cables. The fear was twofold: firstly, our research is often done under the radar, and public citations of our names as a source will likely result in our being banned from countries we work on; and secondly, our sources take tremendous risks by meeting us and providing us with information, thus leaking our names puts them in great danger.

In contrast to the shallow apologies and comments made by supporters of WikiLeaks on the documents posted online without editing out names and details of sources, the US has silently lived up to its responsibility. Away from the eyes of self-righteous crusaders of 'liberty', the US has provided legal advice and support, and in some cases has offered to relocate people who were facing danger.

So now, some researchers are wondering how many years of the careful process of conducting research, developing networks and gaining the trust of persecuted people have been damaged by the reckless and self-indulgent bravado of a few people living comfortably in the West. Contacts in the field worryingly joke about dreams of seeing their own names popping up in a cable online. Both diplomats and researchers say that people are more reluctant to speak, and some irreplaceable relations have been broken.

While protests in Western capitals or clicks on Facebook and retweets on Twitter might give some cases high profile attention, most specific cases of suffering are handled quietly behind closed doors, and with relationships based on trust and good rapport. Sensitive data about a person facing torture in country X is passed to a contact working for a country or body Y that has influence on country X, and country Y is urged to approach country X silently on that case. The reason is that by the time specific cases become international media sensations, it is often the very last attempt to help the person. Often widespread international media attention hardens the stance of the persecuting country and is therefore the last resort. Now, all of that process is disrupted.

So for some, WikiLeaks might have brought fame and a show on a shady Russian television channel, amid sympathetic cheers of courage to advance civil liberties in the West. For those who actually live in the world's most difficult places, and risk their lives to change the situation in their countries; and for those international actors, most of whose names are almost never cited or used in media reports, and with good reason - WikiLeaks brought nothing but damage and concern.