As Americans have risen up in protest against police brutality, attention has understandably focused on the racist incidents of police killing Black Americans and their implications. How these outrages have come to light, however, remains underappreciated. They might never have been exposed without new technologies like smart phones and social media, whose use for accountability is transforming human rights.
Until recently, documenting human rights abuses was a time-consuming and often imprecise activity. As a law student in the early 1990s, I worked on a United Nations project, led by the international legal scholar M. Cherif Bassiouni, to document war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The aim was to create a database of news articles and other reports of atrocities, which were obtained mostly through written sources like news articles, NGO reports, and correspondence with victims and witnesses, which were manually entered into the database. Identifying perpetrators didn’t just take time, it relied very much on witness testimony. We had limited photographic and video evidence at our disposal, and what we had was often received too late to be useful. ...
How New Technologies Are Holding Human Rights Abusers Accountable
They might never have been exposed without new technologies like smart phones and social media, whose use for accountability is transforming human rights.
The aim was to create a database of news articles and other reports of atrocities, which were obtained mostly through written sources like news articles, NGO reports, and correspondence with victims and witnesses, which were manually entered into the database
The proliferation of internet-connected mobile devices allows anyone to document abuses in real time, including Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis
A group of lawyers, activists and coders built Ushahidi, Swahili for “witness,” an application that allowed Kenyans to document and report the details of riots, attacks by police and soldiers, and other violent incidents they witnessed through text or email.
With the introduction of smart phones in the intervening years, the value of crowdsourced tools like Ushahidi for human rights work has increased massively
They use smart phones and video recorders, among other tools, to document an array of human rights abuses, from massacres of civilians to forced migration to the destruction of housing.
satellite images played an important role in uncovering the systematic nature of attacks on civilian populations by the notorious Janjaweed militias.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for similar purposes, and the information gathered re
Given the novelty of these technologies and how rapidly they have been deployed, standards and practices for their use have lagged behind, which could potentially limit their effectivenes
n. The proliferation of “deep fake” images, which are manipulated using artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, is also a growing concern
n 2016, Amnesty International launched the Digital Verification Corps in collaboration with six universities around the world, to pioneer new approaches to the accurate use of new and emerging technologies to monitor human rights abuses.
Witness, a Brooklyn-based NGO that works to share knowledge on the use of technology for human rights accountability, has also developed a comprehensive guide on the use of video as evidence
Another NGO, eyeWitness to Atrocities, has created a mobile camera app that embeds images and footage with metadata from the moment they were created, helping to ensure the accuracy needed to enable their use in legal proceedings.
. In many cases, human rights activists who want to use social media to crowdsource accounts of abuses must rely on private technology companies whose goals may not be aligned with theirs
Still, overall, it seems increasingly likely that technology has a bright future for ensuring human rights accountability.
. And with more institutional backing from major donors and international organizations, efforts to monitor and document abuses from the ground up are increasing the odds of success for human rights advocac
As the standards for verifying this kind of evidence continues to improve and gains wider use, legal acceptance of it should grow