Five years ago, eyeWitness to Atrocities launched with the mission to combat impunity for the worst international crimes. The proliferation of smart phones and social media platforms has opened the floodgates for human rights activists and affected citizens to reveal atrocities previously hidden from public view. Unfortunately, editing software and data manipulation make it incredibly easy to create false evidence and the internet’s architecture helps disseminate it. As a result, courts face an uphill battle in verifying the authenticity and credibility of images.
Our solution was to develop a camera app that could capture authentic, verifiable footage that could stand as evidence in a court of law. The eyeWitness to Atrocities app was the result of a four-year effort to create this unique technology. Backed by the International Bar Association (IBA) , it is the only camera app grounded in this legal perspective. It is designed for the specific purpose of holding perpetrators accountable.
Five years on, eyeWitness is a flourishing organisation. Our team works in close partnerships with frontline organisations documenting human rights violations and other abuses that can amount to genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. As well as providing the eyeWitness camera app, we also offer organisations training and support to ensure that the footage is effective in the legal process. Moreover, an expert legal team analyses all information received and identifies the appropriate international, regional and/or national bodies to investigate further. This team also liaises with these mechanisms and our partner organisations to ensure the material is acted upon.
More than 10,000 photos and videos have been captured and safeguarded using eyeWitness technology. This footage, collected by eyeWitness partners around the world, has contributed to investigations and analyses conducted by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, various European war crimes units, and domestic courts.
5 Lessons learned about using photos and videos as evidence for international justice
Since the initial app launch, eyeWitness has positioned itself as a leading expert in using technology to promote accountability for international crimes and human rights abuses. However, while technology generates a lot of excitement and can be a powerful tool, it is not a solution on its own.
Today, we want to share five of the lessons we have learned.
- Trust is key. Individuals capturing photos and videos of crimes are often risking their liberty and even their lives to do so. This is why the eyeWitness app has robust security features, including encryption. However, secure technology is not enough. Users have to trust the people behind it. Consequently, eyeWitness builds relationships with its partner organisations through face-to-face contact and ongoing support. We also safeguard the anonymity of our partner organisations. This includes only publishing case studies when our partners themselves have gone public with their information. We do not share footage collected by our partners without seeking their consent.
- Human support and expertise must accompany technology. When it comes to combatting impunity, taking verifiable images is only half of the battle. Legal expertise is needed to ensure that the images are both relevant to the case and used effectively within it. Our legal team manually analyses and catalogues the thousands of images taken with the app so they can be easily located and identified. eyeWitness also supports its partners with documentation-planning, filming crime scenes, analysing the footage, and archiving the information.
- Footage captured later in time is also important. It is not always possible to capture images of crimes whilst they are happening. However, photos and videos taken after the event — even years later — can provide crucial evidence of historical crimes. Indeed, our partners have used eyeWitness to document numerous historical crimes in locations such as Ukraine, The Gambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
- Technology needs to be sustainable. While citizen-captured footage can help secure real-time information, it does not guarantee immediate justice. The time lapse to the courtroom remains years or decades, particularly when it comes to atrocity crimes. As such, human rights defenders need to know that the technology they use and the information they collect are enduring. It is also crucial that the technology providers are available to explain to the court how that technology works, even if those cases are in the very distant future. However, the reality is that only an estimated 0.01% of apps succeed. As such, we work to ensure that the eyeWitness system and support are available for the long term. This includes guaranteeing that partners can access their data and our expertise.
- Accountability requires a collaborative approach. Atrocities cases are complex undertakings that involve numerous types of evidence and a variety of different skills. Whilst documentation technology and training are crucial, they are only parts of a bigger puzzle. Firstly, documentation must be incorporated into a larger strategy for justice. This strategy includes case selection, case building, information analysis, and the preservation and presentation of evidence. Secondly, different human rights organisations can assist with different aspects of this strategy. For example, some may specialise in collecting witness testimony whilst others have chosen to focus on forensic evidence. We at eyeWitness have experienced first-hand that success is more likely when different human rights organisations collectively bring their resources, skills and expertise to a single, cohesive strategy.
Combining law with technology: Looking to the future
eyeWitness is at the forefront of innovative documentation approaches. As we go into the next five years, we look forward to building on our success and expanding how we contribute to combatting impunity. We hope to continue to form collaborative partnerships with litigation organisations, university clinics, and human rights organisations across the globe. We will also explore broader avenues for accountability, including the role of corporate actors in committing atrocity crimes. We welcome collaboration with likeminded organisations who are interested in exploring new ways of further diversifying and strengthening the evidence available to investigative mechanisms.