10 Jun New app facilitates evidence collection for atrocity crimes
Eyewitness.org has released a new app that creates a secure “digital locker” for those who seek to record digital evidence of atrocity crimes for eventual use in by courts. The app has been produced by the International Bar Association and the legal services division of Lexis Nexis. Information is available here. The app was developed after controversies regarding the veracity of videos in other contexts.
By using metadata, the recordings can verify the location via GPS coordinates, and date / time of the collection, and confirm no editing has taken place. The app also contains a “destruct” feature if the user wishes to delete it and the material in an emergency.
What will eyewitness do with the footage? Their webpage reports:
eyeWitness will use the footage to promote accountability for international atrocity crimes, specifically war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture. When eyeWitness receives the images, a copy is transferred to a specialised database for analysis by the eyeWitness expert legal team. The team will analyse the videos to determine if they may show that an atrocity crime was committed. The eyeWitness legal team becomes the advocate for the footage, working continuously with legal authorities in relevant international, regional, and national jurisdictions to ensure the image is used to bring to justice those who have committed international atrocity crimes. In some cases, particularly when an atrocity is brought to light that has not received international attention, eyeWitness may provide a copy of the footage to media to raise awareness of the situation and advocate for investigation.
The development of apps such as this one may revolutionize the investigation of international atrocities. They provide potentially very crucial streams of evidence, and facilitate “citizen policing.” In the domestic context, there are analogies to a police accountability app released by the ACLU last week.
This app is a significant development in the field of atrocity investigations for the many “citizen journalists” willing to risk injury, arrest and maybe even death to document crimes. Yet it still raises some important questions. Traditional investigative authorities, for example, are subject to investigation protocols that are intended to yield highly probative evidence. Given the unstable situation in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq the DRC (where the IBA hopes the app will be used) and the limited jurisdiction of international courts, traditional authorities have not been able to perform their role of documenting and investigating ongoing atrocities. Nonetheless, the absence of trained professionals and the lack of protocols, means that certain safeguards will not be available.
In addition, if lawyers tried to to gain access to the stored material, there may be battles over rights of confidentiality. Indeed, given the massive amount of evidence apps like this could produce, this may be no small challenge for Lexis Nexis.
Although eyewitness does not commission any particular investigations, this technology is linked, in a broader sense, to the work of private organizations like the Commission for Justice and Accountability (CIJA), which has conducted independent investigations in conflict situations, often before staff from international criminal tribunals are on the ground. This article by Mark Kersten in the Washington Post lays out the pros and cons. On the one hand, privately funded investigations may speed up the investigation of international crimes, and ensure that crucial evidence is not lost. The individuals who work for these organizations also have a self-described higher risk tolerance than public bodies. On the other hand, impartiality and chain of evidence are key concerns: prosecutors fear the evidence collected by these organizations may not stand up in courts of law.
The development of this technology, and the parallel trend towards privately funded investigations, suggests that a profound change in the way international crimes are investigated is underway.