Human rights activists put victims behind the camera -- Peter Gabriel, Spike Lee, and others give cameras to the persecuted hoping their footage will raise awareness

What’s the most effective weapon in the struggle for human rights? Rocker- activist Peter Gabriel is betting on the hand-held video camera. With backing from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and a $150,000 start-up grant from the Reebok Foundation, Gabriel recently launched Witness, a program to publicize international human rights abuses by arming activists with computers, fax machines, and video cams.

Like the much-televised Rodney King video, which brought the 1991 L.A. police beating of a black motorist into millions of American homes, footage of human rights abuses shot by eyewitnesses can have a powerful and immediate effect. ”Governments react with much greater attention when the world can see what they’re doing,” says Michael Posner, executive director of the nonprofit Lawyers Committee, which focuses on developing legal procedures to handle rights violations.

According to Posner, applications for cameras are being distributed to human rights, environmental, and economic development groups in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America, and cameras will be distributed by hand or mail to selected groups by this summer. ”Some governments are going to be extremely resistant to any kind of scrutiny,” says Posner, who anticipates trouble getting equipment to Burma, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Libya. The plan is then to distribute footage to network news shows.

Further support for the project will come from such celebrities as Sigourney Weaver, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Laurie Anderson, Spike Lee, and Wim Wenders. They’ll help attract donors to the project as well as teach activists how to shoot and edit tape. Witness will also act as an image bank for the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and lawyers prosecuting abuse cases. ”These atrocities are committed every day,” a Lawyers Committee spokeswoman says. ”We just want the pictures to exist so that the story exists.”