Experts Discuss the Use of Open-Source Information to Document IHL and Human Rights Violations

10 January 2023

Open-source information – e.g. satellite images, social media posts, information published by the government, and content made available on information-sharing platforms – strengthens the prospects of accountability and is transforming the way human rights violations and international crimes are documented, investigated and prosecuted. At the same time, national and international prosecution, fact-finding, and UN human rights bodies that address compliance with international humanitarian law increasingly rely on open source information to document violations, as highlighted by the current armed conflict in Ukraine.

‘Technological innovation has increased the availability, quality and dissemination of evidence, helping investigators overcome long-standing challenges around accessing sites of violations, evidence loss, contamination and witness testimony. But this also raises fundamental questions concerning the administration of justice, the management of data, and impacts on the humanitarian space’ explains Erica Harper, Head of Research and Policy Studies at the Geneva Academy.

A one-day consultation organized at the end of December 2022 under the auspices of our Swiss IHL Chair and of our IHL Expert Pool precisely aimed at discussing with a variety of experts – lawyers, judges, prosecutors, IT experts, academics, NGO and social media representatives, as well as UN staff – the challenges, opportunities and best practices arising from an increased reliance on open source information in accountability processes.

Taking Stock of Existing Standards and their Implications

Via four panels, experts discussed open source information and its use in investigations and trials concerning violations of international humanitarian law and human rights from a variety of perspectives – legal, technological, and humanitarian.

They notably discussed whether it has become the new normal in international fact-finding, its added value (and higher stakes) for humanitarian organizations, the admissibility of open source evidence in criminal proceedings and the substantive consequences of this technical choice.

‘Exchanges were fascinating and we were very grateful to have so many experts in the room who brought their knowledge and practical experience to the discussion’ says Dr Francesco Romani, Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy.

The discussions notably highlighted the following key issues:

  • The need of approaching open source information from the viewpoint of information management, bearing in mind its importance for documentation and preservation purposes
  • The necessity to follow up on strategies to include open source information at all levels of organizational activities
  • The importance of open source information as a form of documentation stack, comprising several tools to rely on for documentation purposes
  • The value of existing protocols (such as the Istanbul, Minnesota and Berkeley ones) as tools to initiate sophisticated discussions with stakeholders, and the means to adapt them to specific contexts and purposes
  • The mitigation strategies that are set in place to reduce security risks for people that could be negatively affected by the use of open source information, including data protection.

The presence of two prosecutors from Ukraine was a stark reminder of the relevance and everyday implications of these exchanges.

Facilitating Exchanges among Various Stakeholders

The expert consultation also aimed at facilitating inter-sectoral information sharing and engaging all relevant stakeholders to reflect on recent standards and documents on open source information, in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of the implications of its use for different accountability mechanisms – fact-finding, national and international prosecution.

The meeting was followed by the IHL Talk Towards Greater Accountability with Open-Source Information in order to further discuss this important issue with a wider public in Geneva and online.

Next Steps

The discussion will input an upcoming Geneva Academy publication on open source information and accountability for international crimes.

‘We are also planning – with our IHL Expert Pool – to increase our partnership with UN bodies, including commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions and UN special procedures in the field of open source information for accountability purposes. In this context, we are preparing a submission to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in the context of its thematic study on new technologies and enforced disappearances’ says Erica Harper.

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