Online volunteers hunt for war crimes in Ukraine

Aeden spent time locating evidence of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. He would receive a photo or video from the internet assigned to him, and he was tasked with using tools like aerial satellite imagery and street view on Google Maps to verify location. Once Aeden and a volunteer agree on a location (Aeden says having someone else help confirm the evidence is helpful to avoid visibility of the tunnel), a Bellingcat researcher will verify the information independently. independence. Then the cycle starts again.

It’s an impressive effort, but Lindsay Freeman, director of law and policy at the Center for Human Rights at the University of California, Berkeley, says the sheer number and variety of efforts presents a challenge. Despite their good intentions, some may simply fall short of the burden of proof needed to prosecute war crimes.

Locals look at an area of ​​shells on March 5, 2022 in Markhalivka, Ukraine.
Locals look at an area of ​​shells on March 5, 2022 in Markhalivka, Ukraine. Regional police said six people were killed, including a child, and four were injured in a Russian air strike on this village southwest of Kyiv.


Notably, until recently, there was no document or group that laid out rules for how to collect, store, and present data from conflict areas to make it possible to prosecute war criminals. It is an issue that reflects the spread of international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and a range of human rights and aid organizations with varying powers and jurisdictions — and falls within into the hands of war criminals, who know they may never truly face justice.

In 2020, Freeman helped found Berkeley Protocol, an attempt to systematize the ethical use of open source intelligence. The protocol, which is supported by the United Nations, provides a rule book on how to handle and store digital data. Freeman says that a lot of the documents are provided by Syria and the fact that the formats are different makes data collection a very difficult task there.

The protocol is the first step towards creating a system for the vast amount of data coming from Ukraine, but Freeman admits that is not enough. While many aid groups have adopted the Protocol, many others are set up their own way and have their own internal systems for storing information..

Freeman said that the Berkeley Protocol also “didn’t really address community sourcing,” which has been a huge factor in not only the war in Ukraine but other conflicts over the years. . The increasing accessibility of people to technology and social media means it has never been easier than ever to get information directly from the affected people to those in power, however, the Protocol omits the question of how this information should be properly recorded.

Part of the reason, says Freeman, is because the International Criminal Court (ICC) is selective about the type of evidence it allows, often favoring official sources like timestamped closed-circuit television over electronic footage Camera phone is shaky, has pixels.

What the Berkeley Protocol illustrates is the tug-of-war between what the International Criminal Court considers admissible evidence and public-resourced efforts to gather this evidence. While the Protocol represents an important first step in making a stronger case against war criminals, it also represents an acknowledgment of how the ICC remains horribly out of date. about how people use technology, both victims of war and outsiders looking in. (The ICC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

None of this stopped Aeden from continuing his efforts. “I sometimes worry that the impact of this may come too late for the victims of this conflict, but I believe that justice achieved retroactively is far better than nothing at all. ,” I said.

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