Technology for truth: Ensuring it’s not just more sound and fury

An activist uses his phone to record video of protests in Cairo. © Ryan Kautz/WITNESS

An activist uses his phone to record video of protests in Cairo. © Ryan Kautz/WITNESS

In this post from the International Justice Monitor, Kelly Matheson discusses how activists can be trained to better use technology as a tool for accountability.

Technology is everywhere. Cameras are on street corners, on the dashboards of police vehicles, on the bodies of military troops, and in the pockets of billions of people across the globe on their cell phones. Access to satellite imagery has vastly expanded. Some people meticulously document their lives on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, so we can trace most every move they make. Cell tower pings can be tracked. This tech boom has been highlighted over and over again in this blog series, yet this proliferation in technology has yet to result in a matched proliferation in accountability. This is what we, as a community, seek to change. To do this, we need to work on three primary fronts: policies, tools, and people.

On the policy front, organizations and individuals are proposing and providing feedback on policy strategies. For instance, on July 8, the International Criminal Court (ICC) released its 2016-2018 draft strategic plan and asked for opinions. In part, the ICC plans to expand its reliance on digital data. Many are contributing their thoughts on how this policy decision will impact accountability. One informative read is this article in which Alex Whiting shares his concrete comments on the draft plan.

On the tools front, human rights advocates are using existing technology in new ways, such as satellite imagery. They are also developing new tools. One example isMediCapt, a mobile app that health care workers can use to digitize standard medical information while conducting a medical exam on a sexual violence survivor. Others include InformaCam and eyeWitness to Atrocities, which are both mobile camera apps designed to record video and take photos in a manner that will facilitate authentication of the footage. Then there is Carnegie Mellon’s Human Rights Media Central project at the university’s Center for Human Rights Science. This project explores secure storage, data management, and analysis systems for digital evidence.

But as we all know, smart policies and innovative tools are only as valuable as the people who implement or use them. So here I am going to dive deeper into how we can help one group of activists – frontline documenters – to use one type of technology – the video camera – more effectively for accountability.

Frontline Defenders and Video

Here is the paraphrased version of the story we at WITNESS consistently hear in the field:

Frontline Documenter to Human Rights Lawyer, “Why aren’t you using the videos I am sharing with you that show the commission of human rights abuses or the aftermath that I am risking my life to capture?”

Human Rights Lawyer to Frontline Defender, “I know you are risking your life, but you are not capturing video that has evidentiary value. Why can’t you capture images I can use?”

This sentiment is reinforced by Wendy Betts at the International Bar Association who wrote in an earlier post, “Those who capture and share [user-generated content], often at great personal risk, have already expressed frustration that the information they collect is not used.”

WITNESS has been working to bridge this gap between frontline documenters and human rights lawyers by developing peer-reviewed guidance on how to capture video with enhanced evidentiary value and providing complementary trainings. The Video as Evidence Field Guide (VaE Field Guide) is being released publicly, section-by-section, as it is written. Ultimately, it will serve as a comprehensive guide for people working in the field who are filming, or seek to film, human rights abuses and want to do so to expose injustices as well as hold perpetrators accountable or free the falsely accused.

In short, the VaE Field Guide and the in-person trainings based on the guide’s content are all about ensuring activists can support lawyers and lawyers can support activists.

Case studies illustrating legal principles are woven into the guide and trainings. For instance, one forthcoming case study highlights how video can be used at all stages of the criminal justice process – from the call for an investigation all the way through the appeal stage. Another illustrates why filming in the aftermath of a human rights crime could be invaluable. And yet another forthcoming study, illustrates the importance of understanding what linkage evidence is and how to film it because as noted by Dr. William Wiley, Director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability:

Proving that a crime took place is typically only 10 percent of the work in a complex criminal trial. Proving that a commander, who is not present at the scene of the crime, should be held criminally responsible for their role in the commission of the crime is the other 90 percent. It is critical to capture linkage evidence in addition to crime-based evidence.

Techniques and tools are also included. The section on filming a secure scene details the spiral technique to filming a human rights incident scene while adding essential information outlines the information documenters should add to a video to increase its trustworthiness. On the tools front, the section on collection planning outlines a strategy that lawyers can use to communicate what images they need to documenters to ensure they are gathering reliable and relevant information as safely and efficiently as possible.

Guidance and Training: Non-Negotiables

The provision of guidance and training about our rights, policies, law, and tools is truly non-negotiable. Here are three reasons why.

Principle. As a global society we are committed to honoring the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress as well as the right to scientific information. Just as we should not deny people access to life-saving medicine, we should not deny them tangible access to life-changing technology, information about how best to use that technology, and information that is derived from the technology.

Practical. Documentation experts, including human rights investigators and those working with the ICC, have expressed that “[w]ithout NGO cooperation the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor] may never discover or obtain the relevant evidence to ensure perpetrators are held responsible for their crimes.” The need for assistance from frontline documenters is obvious. In many situations, eyewitnesses and on-the-ground human rights activists are better positioned to collect evidence of human rights abuse than professional investigators because investigators often arrive after-the-fact when the violence has stopped and the evidence has deteriorated or is gone.

These experts have also stated that “there is a need to develop trainings and disseminate guidelines on how to collect evidence of crimes in ways that will maximize its potential probative value in court.” They are not alone in seeing this problem along with guidelines and training as one of many solutions. This solution is recognized by lawyers across the globe.

Evening the playing field. Perpetrators are using technology to enhance their ability to aid in the commission of human rights abuses. Here is a very simple example. In Brazil, plain-clothed police are given video cameras and trained to infiltrate and film protests. One of the instructions they are given is to film the protesters’ shoes because protesters often change clothes but are not likely to change shoes, so police can use the shoes for identification and later arrests. Therefore, we not only need to provide frontline documenters with training and information on the mechanical aspects of using tech tools or the “how.” We must also provide information and training on “what” evidence to capture, so we have a solid foundation for accountability.

In a recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, Christof  Heyns, the Special Rapporteur of Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Execution, cautioned that “technological evidence must not be seen as the endpoint – without meaningful accountability it is just more sound and fury.” Without the provision of guidance and training side-by-side with the plethora of new tools, the data resulting from these new technologies will continue to go unused for accountability purposes and be just that – more sound and fury.

Kelly Matheson is a Senior Attorney and Program Manager at WITNESS and leads the Video as Evidence program.

This post originally appeared in the International Justice Monitor.

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