This month marks a year of conflict in Ukraine. Since Russian Forces launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022, the world has seen a rise in digital evidence, such as videos, drones, satellite imagery and cutting-edge tools. Whilst this evidence may prove to be extremely efficient to denounce human rights violations and war crimes, there is also a growing risk of misleading information and falsehoods about the war. Amid this stream of information, it is crucial to use a clear methodology based on credible, authentic and ethical evidence-gathering and analysis, and to analyse and verify each piece of potential evidence.
Maryna Slobodyanyuk is the Head of the investigation department at Truth Hounds, an NGO founded in 2014 by Ukrainian human rights defenders willing to document war crimes when hostilities started with Russian Forces invading the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine. Truth Hounds started conducting field missions in dangerous areas controlled by Russia, in order to uncover atrocities and violations of international humanitarian law, and to reveal the truth. With the development of new technologies in recent years, they started using open-source intelligence (OSINT) to conduct investigations. They implemented a database to register and transfer all cases of collected war crimes, with separate sections for alleged perpetrators and victims/survivors. The aim is to make each case as structured and complete as possible, and to connect different cases with similar characteristics, such as the same perpetrators, time, place, scale, and operational mode. After cross-cutting this information, it becomes possible to start identifying certain patterns related to war crimes.
Truth Hounds, in cooperation with international organisations such as Human Rights Watch, works on several investigation cases using digital technology, such as 3D models and simulation in severely affected places of Ukraine. Russian Forces started bombing Mariupol at the beginning of March 2022, as part of the Russian Eastern and Southern Ukraine strategic offensive, killing thousands of civilians by shelling residential buildings, stores, and public institutions, such as the theatre. Satellite images have shown the extent of the destruction caused by Russian bombs. Further, a model of the detonation was created to determine the model of explosive and weight of the blast, based on an analysis of aerial bombs used by Russia arsenal, and localisation of nearby Russian airfields. Experts found that the bombing was conducted by a fighters’ aircraft, a weapon extensively used in the South of Ukraine. After cross-cutting architectural plans, mathematical modelling, and satellite imagery, it was possible to reconstruct the attack, and to show that Russia intentionally targeted civilians, which would constitute a war crime under international law.
Truth Hounds forms part of the 5am coalition, a network of human rights organisations devoted to documenting and gathering evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, through the use of new technologies. They are also submitting their findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which represents the first step to potentially bring a case to court. Further, Maryna has also started cooperating with local prosecutors in Ukraine, which might lead to faster and more efficient justice results compared to pursuing crimes at the international level. In 2018, a war department was created in the prosecutor’s office, with sub-departments dedicated to war crimes, investigation, and security in various regions of Ukraine, and OSINT training is now a new reality for prosecutors.
Additionally, organisations use social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Telegram to gather critical content, such as videos, photos and GPS locations. Russian soldiers and military staff tend to publish their photos and locations without realising that experts can use them to uncover key elements. Thanks to innovative apps such as SunCalc, researchers can ascertain the sun’s movement using interactive maps, sunrise and sunset times and shadow length, enabling them to track the position of Russian soldiers at a specific time and location, and to discard manipulated narratives often used by Russia. Using cross-platform searches, they can trace and follow up digital footprints of perpetrators and see if they intend to cross borders, which is incredibly useful when using universal justice mechanisms, such as international criminal tribunals and courts.
Dalila Mujagic, legal advisor at Witness, a U.S.-based NGO, works on the intersection of technology and international criminal law. She believes visual evidence is a powerful resource to document and denounce war crimes. Indeed, it is worth recalling that back in 1945, video footage was used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. 50 years later, a video of a mass execution of Bosnians during the Srebrenica massacre was revealed during the trial of former Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević and from 2011 in Syria, human-rights focused technology was used for the first time by individual activists. New technologies revolutionise human rights abuses investigations. Nevertheless, with the flow of photos, videos and posts coming out of Ukraine, it is difficult to recognise what is authentic and what is not.
To address this, Dalila works with the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group to train people on the ground to capture footage of potential crimes. Recently, the ‘5 tips for filing human rights abuses in Ukraine’, an infographic on what to consider before sharing on social media, was released, and downloaded more than 3000 times in just 2 weeks. Witness works with partners on the ground, to help them capture and preserve trusted and authentic video footage of human rights crimes. As Benjamin Powers, technology reporter for Grid disclosed in an interview with the author, “it is essential to have a 360-degree approach when capturing footage, with metadata and key details like shadows, landmarks, military items. Footages need to be contextualised to be useful for investigators or future legal proceedings”. Even though a single video cannot be an admissible piece of evidence, it can be a key piece of the puzzle, alongside other proofs: “We need to think of all the puzzle pieces we collect, one by one, to create the bigger picture” (Maryna Slobodyanyuk).
These technological tools can prove to be very powerful and accurate, enabling experts to collect crucial clues, find key evidence, uncover violations of the laws of war, as well as eliminating misinformation and propaganda, as Benjamin recalls. The aim of organisations investigating human rights crimes and abuses is to collect legal evidence that can be admissible in court before they disappear from the web. As Maryna states: “I want our investigations to be strong and admissible enough to become an official prejudicial argument”. To support that goal, the University of California at Berkeley’s Human Rights Center developed a protocol for using OSINT that can be admissible in courts, and Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group specialised in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, keeps compiling incidents that have resulted in potential attacks on civilians in Ukraine. Furthermore, Starling Lab, an academic research lab supported by Stanford University, uses Web3 technology – the same blockchain technology that underlies cryptocurrency and Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – to document alleged war crimes through cryptography tools such as encrypted and secured communication and face recognition softwares.
Technology has drastically changed the ways of warfare, including how criminal investigations are conducted. As Benjamin affirms: “It is absolutely crucial to gather evidence, making sure it never gets lost”. This new way of collecting evidence marks a radical shift and is drastically evolving with the web native Gen Z, who use new methods to simultaneously capture, absorb and share information on human rights abuses online. This real-time speed and exposure of information exacerbates misinformation, but it also means that there are more and more eyes on the conflict, with real-time monitoring of attacks.
Even though digital records of war crimes have been used in other conflicts, the use of open-source investigation evidence in the Ukraine war takes this to a higher scale. We are witnessing a systematic effort from various stakeholders that is new in the modern history of war. Ultimately, as Maryna affirms, “the goal is to fight against impunity, and to see that alleged criminals are sentenced and fully recognized in the face of the world, facing the consequences of their acts”. Open-source evidence is crucial in complex cases, and in the development of international law, enabling the achievement of justice. And even though international war-crimes cases are very difficult to prosecute, collecting evidence via digital tools on atrocities is also a powerful defence tool against propaganda and disinformation and creates historical testimonies. The conflict in Ukraine may be technology’s greatest legal test in future war crimes cases.
Author: Lila Carrée (Twitter: https://twitter.com/Lilaleona9 | LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lila-carr%C3%A9e-6749b391/)
Editors: Hayley D’Souza and Kamil Hazbun-Muñoz
- Interview with Maryna Slobodyanyuk in-person in Kyiv, November 2022
- Interview with Dalila Mujagic via phone call, November 2022
- Interview with Benjamin Powers via phone call, November 2022