The online volunteers hunting for war crimes in Ukraine

Aden is spending time in Ukraine giving a geographical location for evidence of civilian casualties and damage to civic infrastructure. He will find a photo or video from the Internet that he has been assigned, and is tasked with using tools such as Aerial Satellite Imagery and Street View on Google Maps to verify the location. Once Aden and a fellow volunteer agree on the location (Aden says it is helpful to seek someone else’s help to confirm the evidence to avoid tunnel vision), the Bellingcat researcher independently verifies the information. Then the cycle starts again.

It’s an impressive endeavor, 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, the burden of proof required to prosecute some war crimes may fall far short.

On March 5, 2022, a local resident looks at the shell area in Markhalivka, Ukraine.
On March 5, 2022, a local resident looks at the shell area in Markhalivka, Ukraine. At least six people, including a child, were killed and four others were injured in a Russian airstrike on a village southwest of Kiev, regional police said.

Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images

Significantly, until recently there was not a single document or group that made rules for properly collecting, archiving, and presenting data from conflict zones for potential war-crime proceedings. It is a problem that reflects a range of international organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and human rights and aid organizations that have different powers and jurisdictions અને and play into the hands of war criminals who know they will never really face justice.

In 2020, Freeman helped discover the Berkeley Protocol, an attempt to codify the ethical use of open-source intelligence. The protocol, supported by the United Nations, provides a manual on how to handle and file digital data. Freeman says a lot of documents were reported by Syria, and the fact that different formats made it a very difficult task to collect data there.

The protocol is the first step towards creating a system for flooding data coming from Ukraine, but Freeman admits it is not enough. While many support groups have adopted the protocol, many others have set up their own way and have their own internal systems for filing information.

Freeman says even the Berkeley Protocol “does not really address crowdsourcing,” which is a major factor not only in the war in Ukraine but also in other conflicts over the years. The increased access of citizens to technology and social media means that it has never been easier to get information directly from the affected people to those in power, yet the protocol puts aside the question of how to properly document this information.

Part of the reason, Freeman says, is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is selective about what kind of evidence it allows, often favoring official sources, such as off-circuit television with timestamps on unstable, pixelated camera phone footage.

What the Berkeley Protocol demonstrates is a battle between what the International Criminal Court considers as admissible evidence and crowdsourced efforts to gather this evidence. While the protocol represents a huge first step in creating a tougher case against war criminals, it also represents an acknowledgment of how the ICC lags behind in how people use technology, both war victims and outsiders. As. (The ICC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

None of this is stopping Aden from continuing his efforts. “I sometimes worry that the effects of this action may be too late for the victims of this conflict, but I believe that justice is still better than ever before,” he says.

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