Tech & Human Rights Blog Series: After Ushahidi – Using New Technologies to Prevent Mass Atrocities

This blog post is part of PHR’s Tech & Human Rights Blog Series. The series is meant to highlight the intersection between technology and human rights, and examine the increasing role that technology can play in advancing human rights around the world.

On December 30, 2007, when Mwai Kibaki announced his reelection as president of Kenya, the country erupted in fierce demonstrations that devolved into three months of brutal, widespread, inter-ethnic clashes. Kenya’s post-election violence was particularly remarkable given that it was witnessed and documented to an unprecedented degree by the country’s residents. This was thanks to the advent of Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”), a crowdsourced website created in response to the post-election violence, through which people were able to submit eyewitness reports of the turmoil via mobile phones, text messages, and emails. The site became a critical tool used in real time by Kenyans and global actors, including international media, to monitor the political unrest. Data amassed by Ushahidi provided critical information for the report published by the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence in 2008, and also informed subsequent investigations and prosecutions of Kenyan political leaders at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kenya’s “Ushahidi moment” signaled a new era in public response to mass atrocities and armed conflict. Citizen witnesses became empowered to document violence in their communities, share information globally, and – where possible – feed data to domestic or international investigators and prosecutors working toward accountability for crimes. In more recent years, similarly conceived digital crisis maps have been developed for the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and digital evidence has been critical in documenting the 2011 violence in Côte D’Ivoire. However, crowdsourced information has its limitations. It’s hard to track when multiple individuals have reported on the same incidents of violence, which can result in over-reporting, and the data itself is not always reliable or corroborated.

In an effort to address the limitations of crowdsourcing, a second wave of technological responses to mass crimes has ushered in even more sophisticated, vital, and specialized tools. Initiatives are now underway at Witness, the International Bar Association, and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), among other organizations, to improve the quality of evidence collected to ensure that the data gathered is accurate, credible, authenticated, and complies with rigorous scientific or court-admissible methodologies. The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor is taking notice of such initiatives. Investigators there are seeking to diversify their own evidence collection techniques to acknowledge new advances in digital documentation, and they have committed to creating a Digital Forensics Team within its Scientific Response Unit.

In the area of sexual violence, one crucial shift has been the use of mobile technologies to empower not just citizen witnesses, but also professional first responders, including clinicians and police officers. These medical and law enforcement professionals are uniquely positioned to collect, document, and transmit critical forensic evidence to prosecutors, and such technologies are aiding justice systems in their ability to more effectively pursue perpetrators.

In line with these efforts, PHR has been developing MediCapt, a mobile phone app meant to assist health professionals conducting medical exams in sexual violence cases. With MediCapt, medical evaluations and corresponding forensic photographs of injuries will be documented in a digital format, stored securely in a cloud, and accessed by police investigators to inform prosecutions. MediCapt has the potential to increase capacity for systematic investigations into mass rape across urban and remote areas, amassing data that can be combined with open-source information to map trends or patterns of locations attacked, types of victims targeted, injuries sustained, weapons used, and languages spoken and military or militia uniforms worn by perpetrators. Not only will this data assist in documenting the prevalence of sexual violence and the widespread or systematic nature of attacks, but it will also provide the factual and legal criteria necessary for reframing a series of seemingly-isolated, individual attacks as mass crimes or crimes against humanity. These indicators may also serve as compelling evidence to hold military or civilian leaders to account for the crimes committed by their subordinates under command responsibility – a key doctrine for war crimes prosecutions.

As technologists continue innovating and addressing a range of challenges like security and storage, we must simultaneously ensure that domestic and international legal systems keep pace. Right now, the ICC and other international criminal tribunals generally use digital evidence only to corroborate witness testimony and documents, but it is rarely admitted as a stand-alone submission. There are signs that this may be changing, but much more can and should be done to help integrate these technologies into domestic and international justice processes. As courts become more comfortable admitting digitally secured medical data as evidence, the burden placed on survivors to testify in person may also decrease. And as we saw with the recent targeted killing of a Kenyan witness slated to take the stand before the ICC, testifying itself can be a dangerous prospect.

Medical and legal first responders must also be trained on the basic methodologies for collecting and documenting forensic evidence in order to fully capitalize on new technologies. And, crucially, judges themselves must receive support and training to better understand and analyze the digital data before them.

We are living in an age in which more people have access to enhanced, low-cost tools to document mass atrocities more promptly and effectively. Such tools will help bolster justice processes seeking to end the culture of impunity. The more fully these justice processes embrace and integrate these tools, the closer we will come to the day when mobile technology, widespread access to the internet, and social media begin to deter these heinous crimes from occurring in the first place.

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