Eyewitnesses to atrocities around the world can use their mobile phones to record evidence in real time. This citizen evidence can be useful to legal accountability efforts, particularly when investigators have been unable to gain access to the sites of these atrocities.
A key challenge is how to harness this evidence for human rights fact-finding and accountability. The volume of citizen evidence generated in contemporary conflicts is enormous, and investigators may struggle to find the most relevant pieces of evidence for a particular case. It can also be traumatic to view and analyse this evidence, and concerns abide about how it can meet the admissibility standards required by courts.
Since 2018, Professor Yvonne McDermott Rees at the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law (together with MA and PhD students) has sought to examine the extent to which open source evidence is transforming human rights fact-finding, and how technology can help overcome some of the barriers to its use in court.
As well as legal research based on a large number of interviews with human rights investigators, these interdisciplinary projects have developed new technological tools for the preservation and analysis of open source evidence. These projects involve collaborations with academics from Heriot-Watt University; University of Essex; University of Manchester; University of California, Berkeley; Carnegie Mellon University and Ateneo de Manila University, and research users/industry partners GLAN; Amnesty International; various United Nations bodies; Syrian Archive; WAPR – Philippines; VFRAME, and Huridocs.
The team has received funding from the ESRC; NESTA; Cherish-DE; HEFCW’s Research Wales Innovation Fund, and the Global Challenges Research Fund.
This research has resulted in a number of useful practical tools, including:
- Tools to help with the filtering of large volumes of evidence: including a facial recognition tool; a machine learning system to identify cluster munitions, and techniques using natural language processing to detect hate speech on social media and to classify textual accounts of human rights violations; and
- A database of airstrikes in Yemen, designed to meet chain of custody requirements of courts, which brings together key technologies to allow online user generated content and private evidence to be stored and viewed together. These are being used by human rights investigators in practice, thus assisting in accountability efforts for some of the world’s worst global atrocities.
To find out more about our work in these areas, please see our course pages for LLM Human Rights and MA Global Challenges; Law, Policy and Practice.