eyeWitness to Atrocities: Innovative Technology for Enhancing Accountability

Publication Date: 
Monday, December 21, 2015
eyeWitness app eyewitnessproject.org

This guest blog comes to us from Wendy Betts. Wendy is the Director of the eyeWitness project at the International Bar Association. She has twenty years of experience in international development, rule of law reform, and transitional justice.

Humanitarian workers often find themselves operating in very volatile situations where violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international criminal law (ICL) are all too common. Far too frequently these attacks are not only perpetrated against the civilian population whom aid workers aim to assist, but also against the aid workers themselves. In the month of November alone, humanitarian organisations suffered at least 20 violent incidents – according to information pulled from open sources by Insecurity Insight. Last year, at least 329 aid workers were victims of major attacks, from Afghanistan to Uganda. Previous posts in this blog have highlighted the risks to humanitarian workers in conflict zones, particularly the local, national staff.

The first priority for humanitarian agencies clearly is to provide assistance and protection to vulnerable populations. Yet as first responders operating in or near the frontlines of conflict, and increasingly as the targets of attack themselves, aid workers are also well positioned to bring to light ongoing violations from areas where many civil society organisations and media outlets cannot reach. However, pursuing accountability for violations of international law can also pose a difficult dilemma for humanitarian organizations, and as such is heavily debated within agencies. While some organizations do document and report on violations against civilian populations, either publicly or privately, many organizations maintain that this would violate the strict impartiality, independence and neutrality needed to gain sustainable access to the people and areas in need.

However, upholding the humanitarian principles need not be entirely incompatible with denouncing violations. Indeed, humanitarian organizations have increasingly resorted to public denunciations of attacks that violate international law, especially against these organizations’ own staff and facilities. Indeed, the need to ensure accountability and end impunity for attacks against humanitarian workers has also been repeatedly raised in the ATHA blog.

When they choose to denounce or document violations against themselves or their beneficiaries, how then can humanitarian actors contribute more effectively to accountability mechanisms?

For those seeking accountability – whether for attacks against civilians or aid workers – there is a need for verifiable information about violations on which IHL and ICL enforcement bodies can act. The frontline access that humanitarian aid workers have to prima facie information, particularly videos and photos, can play an important role in advocating for a cessation of violations, a task often falling within the mandate of humanitarian organizations. For example, ICRC includes in its mandate the promoting adherence to international humanitarian law, as do other organizations. Additionally, this information could serve as potential evidence to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Since conflict zones are replete with misinformation, however, photos, videos, and other information purporting to document atrocities are regularly met with skepticism by parties to the conflict and international actors. This is justifiable, and it is important for all information to be verified. Moreover, humanitarian actors generally are not trained documenters. In the rush of events on the ground, they may not be positioned to capture key pieces of information that would help with the verification process. As a result, the information collected may have little value as a source of pressure and even less as potential evidence of violations which would hold up to admissibility standards in national or international investigatory or judicial bodies.

To address the difficulties in capturing verifiable photos and videos, the International Bar Association launched the eyeWitness to Atrocities app earlier this year. eyeWitness is a mobile camera app designed to record video and take photos in a manner that will facilitate authentication of the footage. The project began in 2011, in response to the increasing amount of footage uploaded to social media from conflict zones and other troubled regions. While this footage has helped to raise awareness of events alleged to be taking place, it often cannot be used as further as proof of violations without knowing the provenance of the footage.

As a result, eyeWitness commissioned extensive research into the admissibility standards for photos and videos across various jurisdictions, including the ICC, international and hybrid tribunals, regional human rights courts, and national level courts in select countries. Certainly there are nuances specific to each; however, there are also core principles shared across the systems. Specifically, a court would need to know when and where the image or footage was taken, that it had not been edited, and that it was the original media file directly from the source.

The eyeWitness app is designed to address these requirements. For admissibility purposes, the app records and embeds metadata that helps to verify when and where the photo or video was taken, and uses the pixel count to confirm that the image or footage has not been edited. The user also submits the videos or photos directly from the app to the eyeWitness organization, thereby establishing a clear chain of custody. The information sent to eyeWitness is held in a secure and scalable off-line repository, and only information captured with the app is accepted and stored. Once media is collected, the eyeWitness legal team analyzes the footage it receives and seeks out the appropriate legal authorities to investigate the situation further. In the interim, the secure repository functions as a virtual evidence locker, safeguarding the original, encrypted footage until it is needed for an investigation or trial.

The app is also built specifically to function in conflict zones and other remote areas, and to protect the security and identity of the user. The user does not need to be connected to the internet for the app to collect the metadata. All media and accompanying metadata are stored encrypted in a passcode protected gallery, which can remain hidden from view until the user is in a safe location with internet access to transmit the files. Furthermore, the app also includes a number of security features designed to mask the existence of the app and the recorded information from casual inspection, for instance at a checkpoint or border crossing. Users may also remain anonymous if they wish – of particular interest to humanitarian workers – as eyeWitness does not collect any identifying information about the users unless volunteered. Indeed, the extent to which humanitarian actors can and should provide testimony in court proceedings is another aspect of the accountability issue that is highly debated. For example, ICRC has immunity from being required to testify before international tribunals, in order to safeguard its role as a neutral and impartial actor. When the user has chosen to remain anonymous, the app has thus been designed to facilitate admissibility of the information without the testimony of the user. This feature helps ameliorate the problem of witness interference, threats, and intimidation, as well as the hesitancy of humanitarian actors to compromise their neutrality by testifying against parties to a conflict.

Humanitarian workers play a crucial, lifesaving role for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. This work is undertaken at great risk to the humanitarian actors themselves, especially in light of the prevailing impunity for violence against aid workers. It is vital that attacks against humanitarian workers are addressed and the perpetrators held to account to ensure that vulnerable populations continue to receive the assistance they need. One piece of accountability process is improved access to information. It is the hope of eyeWitness that the app can contribute to this effort by providing an easy-to-use method for capturing much needed, verifiable information about the violations taking place. However, overall accountability is an issue that must be addressed on a variety of fronts including enhancing respect for the rule of law, strengthening enforcement mechanisms, and increasing the protections for civilians and aid workers.

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