Ethical Challenges Encountered Within Human Rights and International Relations Field and Appropriate Solutions



As a field of study, social science continues to evolve and change by the years. One of the areas of study under social science that experience major change is human rights and international relations (Williams et al., 2017). Nash (2016) posited that the constant changing nature of this area of study is attributable to the changing dynamics of society. Because social science and all its related areas of study are concerned with people and society, there has always been the need for modification and change based on new social trends. Because of the constant changing nature of human rights and international relations, there has always been the need to conduct research to come to terms with new trends, happens, concepts, issues, and factors that affect people, communities, nations, and the world as a whole (Bryman & Bell, 2015). While researchers conduct research in the field of human rights and international relations, they encounter some ethical challenges, which call for practical innovation towards their studies. In this paper, some of the main challenges that are encountered will be discussed, as well as proposed solutions that come with them. In order to appreciate the relevance of knowing the challenges and the need to solve them, an overview of ethical research will first be given, after which the need for research ethics will be explored.

Overview of research ethics

Flick (2014) noted that all researches in the field of human rights and international relations that involve human subjects or participants come with some forms of ethical, legal and political issues. The analysis of the specific ethical, legal and political issues that arise with the inclusion of human subjects in the study is what research ethics is about. Kosinski et al. (2015) explained that research ethics is generally necessary for the purpose of ensuring that the piece of research is conducted in an ethical atmosphere, where the rights of participants are not breached in any way. Research ethics therefore has the population or sample of the study as its main target. Meanwhile, the researcher is also protected by ensuring that an ethical research is conducted (Harriss & Atkinson, 2015). That is, once the researcher is conscious of research ethics and conducts the researcher ethically, he or she is protected from any possible legal implications that may arise from participating in the study. Indeed the reason behind research in the field of human rights and international relations is to acquire advanced knowledge in the way people and societies interact. Such a purpose, which is needful for the larger development of society must therefore not land a researcher in legal issues due to breach of ethical rights of respondents.

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Common forms of ethical challenges faced

There are several forms of ethical challenges that researchers may face when conducting research in the field of human rights and international relations. Bryman and Bell (2015) categorised these challenges into four main types, which are physical risks, psychological risk, social risk, and economic risk. Each of these types of risks come with its own ethical challenges or implications, given the fact that researchers may be compromised in acting in certain ways to protect their interests as against the interest of participants when the risks arise. 

Physical risk

In the course of social research in the area of human rights and international relations, may be the need to collect data from the field of events as certain social actions such as protests, demonstration or even war takes place. In the course of doing that, researchers face the challenge of exposing their respondents or participants to bodily harm. In such circumstances, Sovacool (2014) admonished that it is always important for the researcher to place the interest of the respondents ahead of the need to having real-time information or data. Assessing the perception of a number of respondents, Friedman et al. (2016) emphasised that like journalists, most researchers take delight in reportage that represent issues as they break. As much as such data collected in live events can positively impact on the authenticity of the study, researchers always face a challenge that their respondents may be exposed to physical harm by attempting to collect data from the scene of violent events. 

In other cases, researchers may be dealing with victims of circumstances such as war, rape or torture. In these instances also, researchers may prefer collecting data from respondents when the experience of pain they are going through is still fresh. The advantage of such a situation is that the respondent will be able to give realistic description of their feelings or how their rights were breached in an event. Meanwhile, overly stressing respondents to give evidence or collecting data from them in such states could exploit their state of physical harm, which comes as a challenge for the researcher in controlling.

Psychological risk

There are forms of data collection that expose respondents to physiological risk, thereby presenting a challenge for the researcher on how to minimise emotional suffering and breach of confidentiality. The challenge of dealing with emotional suffering of respondents arise when they are made to give data or information about events in their lives that are generally considered traumatising and abusive (Harriss, MacSween & Atkinson, 2017). Some of the commonest instances where researchers have had to collect data from such people include victims of war, famine, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and disasters. In most of the case, these events happen in the lives of people, undermining them of their human rights and thus raising the need for researchers to learn more about them. At other times, when such events happen, researchers become interested in knowing how the international community or national leaders have acted to protect the interest of citizens. Meanwhile, Kosinski et al. (2015) feared that constantly exposing victims to memories of some of these events may deepen the emotional wounds that they might have suffered in times past. Emotional suffering of respondents is therefore considered one of the most serious ethical challenge that researchers face as part of the psychological risk that respondents may be exposed to.

Breach of confidentiality is another major ethical challenge that researchers may face in the course of their studies. When there is breach of confidentiality, Silverman (2016) notes that it comes with psychological risk to respondents, the need of which it is important to always guard against it. Battiste (2016) noted that breach of confidentiality may occur in many different forms. One of these is when private and sensitive information given by the respondent is exposed to public knowledge with the identity of the respondent attached. That is, when people get to know who is giving certain type of information to a researcher, their confidentiality is said to have been breached (Eriksson & Kovalainen, 2015). Another way in which breach of confidentiality occurs is when information that respondents consider as sensitive and do not give researchers their approval are made public in the research report. In any of these forms of breach of confidentiality, respondents may be hurt psychologically. There are even times that they may feel exposed to public ridicule or threats from people who may want to assault, victimise or harm them for making certain information available. Neuman and Robson (2014) however admits that as researchers, there is the challenge of authenticating the sources of information and thus facing the dilemma of whether or not to make their informants known.

Social risk 

Marshall and Rossman (2014) observed that most forms of social research expose respondents to social discrimination, which is a human rights issue. The challenge that researchers face therefore has to do with how they can minimise or do away with such social risk that respondents may be exposed to. The commonest form of social risk that Nash (2016) found to be associated with social research is social discrimination. It is largely opined that there are certain situations in which when people face make others around them withdrawn from them (Denscombe, 2014). Examples of such situations that expose people to social discrimination are diseases such as HIV/AIDS, rape, and imprisonment. While these events in the lives of people come with social discrimination, making them take part in researches that are related to the event further exposes them. For the researcher therefore, the way to ensure that social discrimination is minimised against their respondents could be a major challenge when undertaking research in the field of human rights and international relations. The reason the researcher may face this challenge is that the absence of research in these areas may make it very difficult to ever have lasting solutions to them (Battiste, 2016). Consequently, there is always that dilemma of deciding to include the vulnerable groups to have social problems solved or to protest them against social discrimination and have the problems  remain.

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Economic risk

Another form of risk that comes with some ethical challenges to the researcher is economic risk. Sovacool (2014) observed that for most human rights and international relations studies, they require financial support. This is because they involve expenditure that commonly comes in the form of traveling and documentation expenses. Apart from the cost that the researcher bears, participation in social science studies could also come with some form of financial implications for the participants. An example of this is when the participant has to travel to meet the researcher. Silverman (2016) noted that when most researchers are faced with financial challenges, they attempt to deal with them by getting sponsorship. In most cases, these sponsors could be people whose interests are directly served in the research. 

For example when conducting a research about human rights abuse, there may be human rights organisations whose interests may be served because the study may expose some issues that the organisation may base on to take legal action. The organisation could therefore serve as a sponsor for the researcher by providing some financial support. Neuman and Robson (2014) however noted that the practice of getting sponsorship comes with its own implications for the researcher. Due to sponsorships, most researchers have been noted to face the ethical challenge of bias, where they may be compromised to shift the focus of their study to findings that favour the sponsor. In essence, biases arising from the need to deal with economic risks is another challenge that researchers face in the field of human rights and international relations. 

Solutions to ethical challenges

As it was mentioned severally above, most of the challenges that researchers face in the course of conducting research expose them to ethical dilemma. The fact that there is a dilemma means they are torn between two options on which of them to take. Marshall and Rossman (2014) opined that by ensuring high ethical consideration in the research process, it is always possible to find a middle ground where the purpose of the researcher is served, while protecting the interest of the participant as well. Below, some of the main solutions to ethical challenges that ensure that researchers achieve their purpose and also protect the interest of respondents are discussed. According to Eriksson and Kovalainen (2015), the solution to dealing with ethical challenges is in three main perspectives, which are ensuring ethical responsibility, applying ethical principles, and ensuring ethical practice. 

Ensuring ethical responsibility 

One of the major solutions to ethical challenges is for researchers to admit that they have an ethical responsibility to keep to a number of stakeholders. In the field of human rights and international relations, some of the major stakeholders in a research are participants, colleague researchers, sponsors, and the social science discipline (Harriss, MacSween & Atkinson, 2017). By admitting that the researcher has a responsibility to keep for these respondents, greater part of the problem that comes with ethical challenge is solved because the researcher gets to appreciate that the interest of the stakeholders is ultimate and must therefore come ahead of personal interests. For example while a researcher is seeking to have ground-breaking evidence from series of violent protests happening in a war zone, it is important to consider that there is a responsibility to avoid bodily harm to participants and so the need not to expose them to the heat of the violence. Ensuring ethical responsibility has therefore been considered as preventative means of dealing with research challenges because it ensures that the researcher puts steps in place to prevent the various forms of risks discussed earlier from happening (Williams et al., 2017). 

Applying ethical principles 

Another dimension in solving ethical challenges is by getting guided with ethical principles Sekaran and Bougie (2016) observed that there are several ethical principles, which protect researchers from exposure to any of the forms of challenges discussed above. For example Walliman (2015) observed that in order to deal with most forms of psychological and social risks such as emotional suffering, breach of confidentiality and social discrimination, researchers have to implement the ethical principle of respect for autonomy, privacy and dignity of individuals. In social research, autonomy is used when the researcher keeps the identity of participants from the public (Armstrong & Botzler, 2016). There are a number of ways to do this, including not collecting personal information from respondents, and not reporting same in the research report. Once the identities of respondents are not known, it will be difficult for anyone to subject them to victimisation. Also, when the respondents can be assured that their identities will not be made known in the study, they do not border about emotional suffering and social discrimination because people cannot link them to the findings from the study (Denscombe, 2014). Both anonymity and privacy can also be ensured by collecting data over electronic medium such as telephone or the internet without physical contact with respondents. In most modern studies, researchers now use online survey methods such as Survey Monkey®, which ensure no physical contact between researcher and respondent and thereby preserving the identity and privacy of respondents.

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Implementing ethical practice 

Friedman et al. (2016) opined that the final set of solutions to dealing with ethical challenges come by performing certain basic ethical practices. In the wake of some of the ethical challenges discussed such as psychological risks and social risks, researchers can minimise or eradicate these by performing the ethical practice of safe data storage. Walliman (2015) observed that most researchers have faced the issue of failing to guarantee confidentiality and anonymity like they promise because their raw data become exposed to third parties. This situation can be avoided by keeping raw data and findings of unpublished data in lockable safes where only the researcher has access to. The use of electronic sources of data storage has been described as ineffective since researchers may be exposed to the activities of hackers and hijackers (Klenke, 2016). Another ethical practice is professional integrity, which has been considered highly necessary in dealing with the challenges associated with biases arising from sponsorship (Carter, Laurie & Dixon-Woods, 2015). Once researchers place their professional integrity ahead of the parochial interest of sponsors, they will always report in a manner that reflect a fair and balanced outcome of the situation on the ground. 


The need to have researches conducted in the field of human rights and international relations cannot be overemphasised but while conducting research, it is important for researchers to be mindful of the ethical implications that come with each type of research. From the discussions so far, it has been reinforced that the reality of ethical challenges is existent. Some of the common forms of challenges arise with psychological risk, physical risk, social risk, and economic risk. Meanwhile, as much as there are challenges, there are also ways in which researchers can position themselves to overcome them. In all cases, researchers are admonished to put their professionalism ahead of any personal interests, including those of their sponsors. What is more, researchers must endeavour to heed to basic ethical practices such as data storage and archiving. Once these are done, it will always be possible for researchers to use their professional studies to promote knowledge in the field of social science.

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