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How pro bono lawyers contribute to justice with eyeWitness to Atrocities

eyeWitness to Atrocities was set up to provide human rights defenders, journalists and courageous citizens with a tool that would ensure their images of grave international crimes could be authenticated for use in criminal investigations or trials. The eyeWitness mobile camera app allows users to capture photos and video that are embedded with metadata to verify where and when the footage was taken, and that the image was not altered. The user then sends the footage to eyeWitness’ secure server, to establish a trusted chain of custody to allow the footage to be used in court. A crucial component of the project is to review, tag and catalogue all footage and data received so that it can be used by investigators. It is this last component that pro bono lawyers help eyeWitness with.

Three male lawyers sitting at a conference table. Each is verifying eyeWitness footage on a laptop.

Pro bono lawyers participating in the latest eyeWitness footage review session

Why does eyeWitness review and catalogue footage?

As explained in a previous article, whilst smartphones have been instrumental in capturing evidence of atrocities, they also create a new problem for investigators: having so many photos and videos that they cannot possibly review or verify all of them. Indeed, open-source investigation website, Bellingcat, reportedly have “more footage of the Syrian war than the length of the conflict itself.” As such, finding a key piece of evidence can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. At the time of writing, eyeWitness alone has more than 20,500 photos and videos in its database when including test footage. At least 14,500 of these images are potential evidence of atrocities. It would simply be impractical to hand over thousands of photos to an investigator as it will not be possible for them to review them all to find the ones most relevant to their case.

As such, eyeWitness preps the footage for investigators by manually tagging, reviewing, transcribing, describing and cataloguing each piece of footage received. These steps are key for identifying and retrieving relevant footage for an investigation. After seeking the consent from the photographer, the footage and its metadata are compiled, indexed, and securely transmitted to the investigators.

Pro bono lawyers: analysing footage captured with the eyeWitness app

As a small not-for-profit, it is difficult for eyeWitness to review the thousands of photos and videos it receives without relying on external help. Fortunately, since 2016, eyeWitness has received the generous support from the London offices of three top law firms: Linklaters, Hogan Lovells, Debevoise & Plimpton. On a pro bono basis, lawyers from these firms help eyeWitness analyse the footage received via the eyeWitness app. To date, pro bono lawyers have donated over 1,100 hours and have reviewed more than 12,000 photos and videos.

We have found that working with lawyers offers numerous benefits. Firstly, even if lacking specialisation in atrocity crimes, lawyers have foundational knowledge of the rules of evidence that enable them to catalogue footage appropriately. Secondly, they are well versed in conducting this type of detail-oriented task. Thirdly, they have the skills to help eyeWitness compile dossiers of footage. Fourthly, the lawyers we work with are accustomed to working with sensitive and highly confidential information. This experience and trust are essential to protect the privacy and security of eyeWitness’ partners and individual users. Fifthly, and finally, working with such large international law firms enables us to bring on board people from different backgrounds with varied language skills and broad knowledge of the conflict situations we are analysing. For instance, a lawyer from Palestine has helped us to translate notes submitted by the documenters and to transcribe and translate videos.

Unfortunately, the pro bono rota had to be temporarily suspended due to Covid-19. However, we are thrilled to announce that, as of October 2021, we are safely resuming the review sessions. Not only are we looking to continue working with the pro bono lawyers already on our rota, but we are currently making arrangements to add two new law firms to expand the program and recruit new volunteers.

Contributing to justice

eyeWitness has so far submitted 24 dossiers of evidence to various accountability mechanisms. One such dossier was submitted to the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. eyeWitness had received more than 2,700 actionable photos and videos from activists in Palestine. After analysing and reviewing the footage with the help of pro bono lawyers, eyeWitness submitted a dossier containing 235 authenticated images to the UN investigators. These images were ultimately used to confirm the locations of major incidents.

Without the input of Linklaters, Hogan Lovells, Debevoise & Plimpton, and other future volunteers, eyeWitness would neither have the capacity to review the vast amount of evidence that comes in, nor be able to deal with requests from investigators and prosecutors when evidence must be provided on a tight deadline. On occasion the lawyers have had to go through several thousand pieces of evidence over the course of one day to deliver the requested information. It is eyeWitness’ legal expertise, along with the capacity provided by the pro bono firms, that allows our technology to have an impact for justice.