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From Index Cards to AI: HURIDOCS' use of technology to document Human Rights offenses

June 16, 2020

By Philippe Mottaz - The Geneva Observer -

With Black Lives Matter protests around the world and Europe springing back to life this week, it is difficult not to zigzag during my virtual interview with Friedhelm Weinberg about HURIDOCS, the organization the 32-year-old German joined in 2012, becoming its Executive Director in 2017.

Some members of its team are Google fellows and have been trained in Silicon Valley. Weinberg, himself a digital native driven by a deep "belief in the need to defend human rights and an early interest in international affairs," walks me through the intersection of advocacy and technology that has become extremely powerful for human-rights defenders and more broadly for social activists everywhere.

As a warm-up to our conversation, I asked Weinberg his personal thoughts about the images of George Floyd being suffocated by Derek Chauvin—a damning piece of digital evidence. "The Floyd video is undoubtedly horrifying, and that horror sparks outrage. No description of such a scene would have had the same impact or would have sparked protests on such a scale around the world," Weinberg tells me. "But this is not the first such video, and for me, the lack of change after the outrage felt and expressed prompts reflection. We had the video of Rodney King in Los Angeles. We saw Eric Garner being choked by police in New York. So, I ask myself, why is it that after witnessing and mobilizing, don't we do more to change things?" He makes another important point: "If Floyd's video is having such an impact, it is also because the groundwork has been years in the making through the activism of Black Lives Matter. There is a parallel we see with the grassroots organizations we work with. It is always a combination of things."

The need remains for solid, accurate information, and incontrovertible documentary evidence to hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.

"We provide human-rights defenders with tools, solutions, and services to strengthen their credibility when they do advocacy or decide to litigate," Weinberg tells me of HURIDOCS. Although the technology has evolved, the need remains for solid, accurate information, and incontrovertible documentary evidence to hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes. "Besides technology, we also have seen a tipping point in public records being much more available. The transparency and open-data initiatives have given human-rights defenders access to information that can be complemented by their own research, which increases the need to develop solid processes when dealing with so much information."

"Sometimes, a YouTube video isn't just a YouTube video. A tweet isn't just a tweet. And a Facebook post isn't just a Facebook post. They can be critical evidence of human rights abuses that will one day deliver justice to the communities who have been wronged. "

Most of the time, this grassroots, on-the-ground work has to be conducted in dangerous and difficult circumstances, in war-torn countries, or in places where human rights defenders are being threatened. The task is often daunting. Information can get lost, collected evidence stolen, or hacked. Uwazi, a HURIDOCS-developed free, open-source solution, helps human rights defenders organize, analyze, and publish documents. It is being used by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) to compile digital evidence of gross violations of international law. "Sometimes, a YouTube video isn't just a YouTube video. A tweet isn't just a tweet. And a Facebook post isn't just a Facebook post. They can be critical evidence of human rights abuses that will one day deliver justice to the communities who have been wronged. (…) Capturing a copy of this content and securely storing it will be important in any future criminal proceedings for these attacks," states a case study from HURIDOCS’ website.

Digital evidence poses another enormous challenge: it can be manipulated.

The Syrian regime maintains that the photos copied on a USB drive by a former security official known as Cesar—the most damning evidence of its record of torture—are inadmissible in court. The original digital files, stored on the servers of the Syrian security forces, have fortunately been secured and are now part of the evidence used in the trial of Syrian security agents in Germany. Unless deliberately preserved, digital evidence can also be erased. In the case of the Malaysian Airlines MHF 17 downed over Ukraine in 2015, a deleted Facebook post pointing to the responsibility of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists was miraculously saved and is now part of the evidence.

"Processes, therefore, become extremely important," says Weinberg. "How you grab and keep the metadata of the digital assets you're collecting, how you document the process itself. You also need to develop a strategy by asking yourself what the purpose of my storing is. It must be very project-specific and must depend on what you are eventually trying to achieve."

A recent workshop in Colombia with students on designing processes and a system to record violations of their rights to assemble and academic freedom. ©HURIDOCS

Besides litigation, large sets of data can reveal and yield crucial information when doing advocacy work.

The Human Rights Database used by Plan International in its defense of girls' rights uses machine learning and smart algorithms to intelligently process data in the push for its cause. Together with HURIDOCS and fellows, Plan International has developed a database to track the evolution, to prevent the erosion, and to promote the progressive realization of girls’ rights around the world. "Girls are essentially invisible in the international sphere, in international laws and policy," according to Plan's Anne-Sophie Lois quoted in a case study by HURIDOCS.

"Data-driven advocacy is a far more effective method than old-school diplomacy as it is based on objective, verifiable facts," writes Justice Project Pakistan, a HURIDOCS partner in the launch in 2019 of the Death Penalty Database. Pakistan lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, using the war on terrorism as its justification. The database reveals that the majority of the executions in Pakistan are unrelated to terrorism charges.

"A curious bunch"

The HURIDOCS team describes itself as "a curious bunch," "a bit geeky," and "always seeking new ideas and perspectives related to our work supporting human rights defenders." Weinberg has kept an insatiable curiosity from his early interest in a journalistic career: he spent some time as an intern at the Spiegel Moscow bureau and freelanced as a journalist during his studies in international relations. He became interested in human rights as a high-school student participating in youth exchanges between Germany and Poland, and later worked full-time as an organizer of these events as part of his social service as a conscious objector before attending university.

Today, HURIDOCS gives him the perfect platform to combine his many interests and preoccupations. He sees HURIDOCS’ activity and practices themselves in need of some advocacy. "Data-driven advocacy is extremely powerful but to really grow and expand, to become more widespread, it needs an infrastructure to be built, the development of some standards and norms, and interoperability between the various platforms and systems. I think that is one of the most important challenges as we look ahead to grow the movement and strengthen the human rights defenders' movement. Unfortunately, the need for such an approach can only augment as human rights and their defenders are globally under growing threats. It is an evolving field. In the search for truth and accountability, look for instance at what GLAN has been able to achieve and at the successes of some recent journalistic open-source investigations."

With truth in decay, rampant mis- and disinformation, a frontal assault on the press, the looming threat of deep-fake news and extremely sophisticated computer-altered videos, the need for incontrovertible, fool-proof evidence in the commission of crimes will only increase. Establishing the truth in the digital age requires new skills and expertise. Produced by Forensic Architecture in partnership with Bellingcat, the investigation into the death of Muhammad Gulzar—a Pakistani national killed in March while attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Greece—is an absolute must-watch if you want to fully grasp the challenges ahead. The Greek government called it fake news.