Civil Society Documentation Efforts: Working Together to Identify and Find Solutions

Civil Society Documentation Efforts: Working Together to Identify and Find Solutions

[Brianne McGonigle Leyh is an Associate Professor of Human Rights Law and Global Justice with Utrecht University and a Senior Legal Advisor with PILPG, working on transitional justice and human rights documentation. Milena Sterio is The Charles R. Emrick Jr. – Calfee Halter & Griswold Professor of Law & LLM Programs Director and Managing Director at the PILPG, working on transitional justice and human rights documentation. Gregory P. Noone is a Professor of Political Science and Law at Fairmont State University, a retired U.S. Navy judge advocate, and a Senior Peace Fellow and Senior Legal Advisor with PILPG, working on atrocity crimes, accountability, and human rights documentation.]

Recently, the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), The Engine Room, and HURIDOCS published a report titled, “Human Rights Documentation Solutions: Human Rights Documentation by Civil Society – Technological Needs, Challenges, and Workflows.” This needs assessment report is the culmination of nearly a year of research and interviews, completing the first phase of a larger project to assist civil society organizations in conducting human rights documentation by ensuring access to sustainable, tailored, and secure technological solutions that facilitate their efforts for truth, justice, and accountability. PILPG and its partners found that there is not one overarching need throughout the field, but rather, individual concerns of a variety of actors. In 84 pages, the report identifies 10 key findings. In this blog, we tease out three of the key findings that are applicable to civil society documenters, tool developers, and transitional justice experts. We also highlight the incredible work around civil society documentation efforts and stress the need for synergy among various actors involved in documentation initiatives in order to find solutions to existing challenges.

The Context of a Needs Assessment

Civil society organizations have long been involved with efforts to document and investigate atrocities and human rights violations in conflict and post-conflict settings (see here). Civil society actors are often well placed to collect information about atrocity crimes due to their temporal and geographic proximity to the locations of such crimes, access to survivors, and trust from impacted communities. And in the last decade, these documentation efforts have increased significantly as technologies have become more available and easier to use (see here, and here). Yet, despite this critical work in building a complete picture of violations and their impact, many civil society documenters have unmet documentation and technology needs that require dynamic solutions.

To address these needs, a growing and diverse number of organizations working in the fields of documentation and technology have started to build important networks and partnerships. Organizations such as eyeWitness, Horizontal, Benetech, Bellingcat, C4ADS, and others are providing crucial technology tools and support. International NGOs such as Open Society Justice Foundation, Amnesty, TRIAL International, Civitas Maxima, ECCHR, and more are providing key assistance in how best to utilize the documentation work and around navigating legal and policy landscapes. Likewise, university and academic partnerships are increasing as well. The universities involved in Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corp are all playing an important role in documentation and accountability efforts. Foremost among these universities is the work carried out at the University of California Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. All of these actors have been working (often in partnership) on ensuring that information and evidence collected by a wide array of human rights documenters is preserved, usable, and potentially admissible in future accountability processes.

Notwithstanding these crucial and important steps, challenges remain and demands for documentation assistance are growing. PILPG, in partnership with The Engine Room and HURIDOCS (together, the “Consortium”), have also been working to substantially contribute to this important work by addressing these challenges and demands. In 2019, PILPG began work on a civil society documentation project funded by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. Throughout the first phase of PILPG’s project, the Consortium conducted interviews and roundtable discussions, culminating in the release of the needs assessment report and public launch event, featuring discussants from civil society, tool development, and legal backgrounds. In the next phase, PILPG and its partners will be co-designing and developing an iteration of Uwazi, an existing HURIDOCS software tool, to come up with a more widely-used, user-friendly, and sustainable open source tool to continue facilitating this interaction between documenters, tech experts, and other institutions. 

First Key Finding: The Need for Strong Methodologies and Workflow Processes

A major key finding in the report is the need for a strong methodology that forms the basis for a workflow and general civil society interaction with a technological solution. It is not always clear to civil society documenters what their technological needs are and how they can be matched with available tools. A relational methodology with many units of analysis for a complex international crime is challenging for civil society documenters to develop and then apply to a technology solution. Moreover, some face difficulties in matching expectations of tool capabilities with technological capacity and resources. With a lack of resources and capacity to accomplish these tasks, civil society documenters require support surrounding implementation of a tool. 

Civil society documenters need to continuously refresh their methodologies and workflow processes as their organizations, priorities, and projects evolve over time. Many organizations consulted in the assessment highlighted high levels of staff turnover as particularly challenging in this regard. Moreover, the documentation solutions landscape changes fairly rapidly. For example, in the past few years technology tools such as Martus, Casebox and OpenEvsys were all sunsetted, or terminated automatically after a specific time frame, requiring users of these tools to migrate their data and adapt their workflow to another tool. Civil society documenters must be able to track technological developments and continuously incorporate them into their workflows in order to sustain themselves in the documentation space. This requirement for ongoing attention to a methodology and documentation practices precludes a ‘set and go’ approach to documentation and places further burdens on the resources and capacities of documenters.

As the PILPG Report highlights, PILPG and its partners will work to co-design a documentation solution that matches the needs of three civil society collaborators. In doing so, these civil society documenters will receive assistance in honing their methodologies in an attempt to address the need for greater support in methodology and workflow training.  For the field at-large, only with this type of support can local documenters effectively serve communities affected by atrocity. Yet, issues remain with regard to the sustainability of the kind of assistance. More solutions are needed.

Second Key Finding: The Need to Move Away from “All-in-One” Tools

A second key need identified in the PILPG report is the necessity to move away from tools that are an ‘all-in-one’ or end-to-end solutions. An ‘all in one’ solution burdens tool developers to meet a wide range of needs and threat models at the same time, restricting the latitude to respond to tradeoffs.  Not only can these types of solutions become difficult for organizations who may not need all of the features to use, but these tools may be difficult for the developer to maintain.  A more component and modular approach, with simple apps to perform specific tasks (such as generating metadata), creates an ecosystem of tools that civil society documenters may employ together depending on their workflow(s). From the tool developer perspective, this approach is more sustainable as smaller and adaptable tools are easier to maintain and less resource-demanding. This modular approach requires greater interoperability of tools that are designed specifically for human rights documentation and, in some cases, other tools that civil society documenters may commonly use, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Signal, and WhatsApp.  

These lightweight, flexible tools may present civil society documenters with more ease of use in comparison to a more expansive ‘clunky’ tool.  However, an ecosystem of tools requires easy combination of a range of tools. This is already underway with the use of data portability standards and a range of recently-developed  integrations, such as the Digital Evidence Vault integration with Uwazi and Tella’s use of ODK that facilitates use with KoboToolbox.

An ecosystem of tools allows civil society documenters to select the right tool for their documentation methodology and risk profile. For instance, eyeWitness to Atrocities may be the most suitable tool for an organization predominantly documenting images and videos for the purposes of accountability and not aiming to analyze. However, Tella might be more suitable for an organization that uses both images and interviews and wants to use the data after collection. With an ecosystem of tools, some of which cover the same purpose, there is greater potential to serve the different needs and workflows of civil society documenters.   

Taken in combination with the previous finding, a larger ecosystem of tools requires greater transparency of the capacity of a tool, more support for civil society documenters in assessing which tool meets their needs, greater support in the use of multiple tools, and data portability to allow easy migration from one tool to another. Bolstering this dialogue throughout the documentation and tool development communities is crucial to the successful implementation of tools and documentation processes.

Third Key Finding: Enhancing Knowledge of Evidentiary Standards and Technology

Finally, the last key finding identified in the report is the need for improved understanding of documentation solutions and technology among human rights and transitional justice experts. As the documentation space digitises ever further, the ability to work with and understand databases and documentation tools is becoming an increasingly necessary skill. Civil society actors (and lawyers in particular), especially those of a senior rank, may be resistant to technological solutions. Regardless, there is a heavy push for all human rights practitioners and transitional justice experts to operate with a base level of ability in order for documentation efforts to be utilized for a wide range of purposes but especially for accountability efforts. This base level of ability can be supplemented with varying degrees of greater expertise.

The need for lawyers to have greater technical knowledge of documentation solutions is keenly relevant to their ability to adequately understand and build complex cases. Simultaneously, there is also a need from tool developers and civil society documenters for human rights and transitional justice experts to explain more clearly the legal implications of the use of documentation solutions as regards the evidentiary value of the data collected.  This includes a need for lawyers and transitional justice experts to create evidentiary standards that can then be implemented into documenters’ workflows. The recent publication of the Berkeley Protocol on Open Source Investigations is a leap forward in this regard.

Lawyers’ lack of technical knowledge is especially apparent in regards to the legal and evidentiary standards required of tools to maintain chain of custody. The interviews conducted by PILPG and its partners highlight a discrepancy between what some tool developers think chain of custody requires, and what lawyers think it requires from technology. While some lawyers consider encryption to be necessary, tool developers issue caution as the data will be ‘in the wild’ at some point, meaning that there can be irrecoverable data loss with the use of certain high-security features such as end-to-end encryption. [e]yeWitness navigated this issue through the inclusion of lawyers as end users of the tool throughout development. This resulted in an encryption process that reflected the analog system sufficiently. Including lawyers as end users of the data throughout the development of a tool can help tool developers think about the explainability of tools and the demands of evidentiary standards.


As identified by PILPG and its partners, civil society documenters face numerous challenges. Three of the main challenges described above are the need for strong methodologies and workflow processes, the need to move away from “all in one” solutions, and enhancing knowledge of evidentiary standards and technology across the field.  It is clear from the report that technology is not a panacea to the challenges faced by civil society documenters and that documentation is as much a human process as it is technical. But it is with well-designed technology that is adapted to the needs of civil society (and complemented with wide-ranging support for implementation) that documenters can continue fulfilling a vital role in truth, justice, and accountability for years to come.

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Courts & Tribunals, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Organizations, Public International Law
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