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Using verifiable footage to fight for adequate housing in Ukraine

March 15, 2021

Since its outbreak in 2014, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has resulted in constant artillery attacks that have damaged and destroyed property, leaving millions displaced and homeless. In partnership with the Digital Verification Unit (DVU) based at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre Clinic, and with the input of Global Rights Compliance (GRC), eyeWitness to Atrocities has now submitted a report regarding attacks on civilian housing to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. The report urges the Special Rapporteur to contact the responsible authorities, requesting the initiation of effective investigations. The report is based on footage captured by photojournalist, Anastasia Taylor-Lind,and the Ukrainian organisation Truth Hounds/ International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR),as well as on open source investigations. All media is shared with the consent of the sources.

Truth Hounds via the eyeWitness App

© Truth Hounds via the eyeWitness App

Investigating military attacks against civilian property and houses during the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Throughout 2017 and 2018, eyeWitness received 945 photos showing conflict-related property damage captured by documenters using the eyeWitness to Atrocities App. Amongst these documenters were Truth Hounds, a team of human rights professionals dedicated to documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Thanks to the metadata captured by the eyeWitness App, eyeWitness’ legal team was able to ascertain the exact dates, times and locations where and when the photos were taken. However, whilst the images demonstrated that civilian properties had been damaged or destroyed, they did not indicate when the damage occurred, or the circumstances prevailing at the time. This is because the images were captured after rather than during the event: a reality common to ongoing or post-conflict human rights documentation.

Photo of extensive damage to a civlian home in Ukraine captured using the eyeWitness App

Figure 1 Photograph of the damaged house captured with the eyeWitness app and close-ups of the satellite images showing the roof of the house before (21 May 2015) and after (9 June 2015) the attack. Close-ups of satellite images © 2020 Maxar Technologies

“Capturing photo or video of a potential incident only provides part of the picture, even if the footage can be verified and authenticated” explains Raquel Vazquez Llorente, eyeWitness’ Senior Legal Advisor. “Generally, any media needs to be combined with other sources to establish the facts necessary for legal analysis. For this report, we analysed historical satellite imagery and information publicly available online in Ukrainian, Russian and English. eyeWitness not only supplies the technology that allows human rights defenders to capture verifiable photo and video, but we also provide the necessary legal assistance and support to use their footage for justice and accountability.”

eyeWitness’ legal team conducted a visual analysis of the photographs received through the eyeWitness App, and in partnership with the University of Essex’s Digital Verification Unit, carried out a comparison of historical satellite imagery for the relevant locations. By comparing any visual differences on the buildings, the team was able to either verify the dates of the attacks provided by the witnesses or narrow down the dates on which the attacks may have occurred (when this information was not available directly from the source). On some occasions, the satellite images provided information about military positions, too.

The team also conducted a thorough online investigation, eventually identifying over 450 potential sources of information in Ukrainian, Russian and English—including police reports, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reports, social media posts and local, national and international media reports. This information helped indicate whether there were reasonable grounds to believe that the damage to the civilian properties was an event of military nature in violation of international law. GRC,an international legal partnership with decades of experience in human rights due diligence, provided Ukrainian and Russian speakers to help with the factual research.

In total, eyeWitness identified 51 houses affected across three locations in Ukraine.

Photographs captured with the eyeWitness app showing damage on houses, overlayed on the satellite image with their exact location (house number 48) and approximate location (house number 25). 13 September 2018, Map © 2021 Maxar Technologies

Figure 2 Photographs captured with the eyeWitness app showing damage on houses number 25 and 48, overlaid on the satellite image with their exact location (house number 48) and approximate location (house number 25). A list with other available photographs for each house is provided in Annex I. Full size photographs and their metadata are in Annex II. Map © 2021 Maxar Technologies

“The attacks on civilian homes documented in this report reflect the unfortunate day-to-day reality of conflict, where violations of international law are committed but largely overlooked amidst the overall context of the fighting,” says Daragh Murray, Head of the Digital Verification Unit. “The incidents presented in the report are not the highest profile, yet reveal the risks posed to individuals' inalienable human rights by situations of armed conflict.”

Protecting the right to adequate housing in Ukraine

eyeWitness’ legal team prepared the report in partnership with the University of Essex’s DVU. With the permission of the documenters who captured the initial footage, the final report was submitted to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing.

Adequate housing is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. It is considered a human right under international law, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing is tasked with promoting.

It is eyeWitness’ hope that by submitting this report, the incidents will be raised with the relevant authorities so that an appropriate investigation may be conducted, and the right to a remedy of those affected ensured.