Technology for Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation, Awareness Raising and Solidarity:
As 2014 comes to a close, and as we celebrate the 66th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those of us in the human rights and peacebuilding community have much to reflect on. With human rights abuses continuing unabated, members of our global community continue to suffer from issues such as police brutality, torture, indefinite detention, and murder. Further, calls for accountability of perpetrators is often mired in questions relating to a lack of evidence or state actors’ refusal to take action. Despite the difficulties involved in enforcing human rights, technology has made it easier to monitor and document abuse, while providing a platform for advocates and activists alike to raise awareness and show solidarity. This guide will provide an overview of technology in the service of human rights. It is my hope that you find the guide informative and that you can contribute some thoughts to the questions that are posed at the end of the guide in addition to other resources that would be of interest to fellow members.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a symbolic agreement giving weight to the modern day struggle to protect human rights. Created by the newly established United Nations in 1945, the UDHR was a concerted attempt by numerous countries and governments around the world to provide agreed upon standards of treatment for individuals and to set forth a framework through which the guarantee of these rights can promote democratic principles.
It has been over 60 years since the Declaration was signed and debates continue to be waged over the degree to which the UDHR can really be deemed universal and thus relevant to countries, societies, and communities around the globe. Despite these ongoing debates, the reality that many around the world are faced with comes in the form of systematic abuses of rights and a lack of legal remedies to address grievances. Furthermore, in the absence of evidence or data to prove their rights claims, many survivors of human rights abuses choose to stay silent to avoid the uphill battle of addressing the abuses they have suffered.
In many ways, the difficulties associated with monitoring and documenting human rights abuses has become easier and perhaps more importantly, readily available to citizens on the ground, many of whom are the direct targets of abuse. What has allowed for this important shift to happen is the rise of technology and the ways in which it has been creatively leveraged to both combat rights abuses and to provide evidence for appeals grievances. The use of technology has also increased awareness of rights issues among the global community and has provided a platform through which individuals can express their solidarity and show support for those who continue to be affected by various abuses.
The next section of this guide will delve into the different technological tools that are being used to monitor and document human rights abuses. The guide will also focus on ways in which technology and specifically, social media has leveraged various issues and brought them to the attention of the world. Further, throughout the guide, some of the various issues with the different technologies will be addressed, which includes everything from concerns about consent to utilizing social media as a sole form of activism.
The use of satellite imagery to document human rights abuses is one that has been utilized by organizations such as Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The use of satellite imagery has become an increasingly used technology to capture human rights abuses and have. For example, Taillant and Picolotti (2011) outline a number of ways that these images are being used for a wide range of documentation efforts including the identification of mass graves, the identification of restrictions on land use by indigenous populations, and the monitoring of current crisis such as ethnic conflicts, and crime tracking among other uses.
The AAAS has been one of the most active organizations using satellite images to document human rights abuses that include destruction of facilities and property. The AAAS has collaborated with a number of organizations in monitoring and documenting human rights abuses including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Physicians for Human Rights among others. One of AAAS’ most recent project in this regard is one in which destruction of Syrian hospitals were captured by satellite images. The images that AAAS captured contributed to the Physician for Human Rights’ Syria Mapping Project, providing specific evidence of the targeting of medical and other health professionals in addition to healthcare sites.
In 2006, Amnesty International and AAAS collaborated on a project called Eyes on Darfur. The use of satellite imagery made it possible to monitor and track evidence of ongoing abuses in Darfur. Beyond simply providing satellite imagery, this project according to Amnesty International, “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally “watch over” and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using satellite technology.” Thus, not only was this project important in documenting abuses, but also in fostering a community of concerned global citizens that could bear witness to and take action to cede the destruction caused in Darfur by the Sudanese government. In this way, satellite imagery provided evidence of abuse while mobilizing the global community.
In addition to the Eyes on Darfur campaign, one of Amnesty International’s first and most prominent satellite imaging projects, the organization has also used satellite images to map and monitor human rights abuses in Syria and to detect the presence of prisons in Eritrea (other examples can be seen here).
Human Rights Watch is another prominent organization that has used satellite imagery to document human rights abuses. Burma was among the cases that Human Rights Watch focused on and for which the satellite imagery they obtained, detailed destruction of property in Meiktila in Central Burma alongside violent and deadly conflict. The images that they captured can be found here and more information, including a call for investigations can be found here.
The use of satellite imaging to document human rights abuses represents one of the more advanced technologies that have been used and also one that largely requires some form of organizational support and impetus.
Using video to combat human rights abuses:
Organizations and individuals have increasingly adopted the use of video to document human rights abuses. Earlier this year, for example, Amnesty International captured video footage documenting war-crimes in North Eastern Nigeria. Capturing and gathering such footage served as an important tool in identifying those involved in perpetuating the conflict, which not only includes non-state actors, but also includes the Nigerian military.
Another organization that has used video to capture human rights abuses is B’Tselem. B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights organization that seeks to protect and preserve Palestinian human rights. In 2007, this organization launched a camera project that equipped Palestinians with the training and tools to document abuses both my the military and settlers. In this video, for example, a Palestinian is shot at with rubber bullets by a solider while blindfolded.
Outside of coordinated organizational use of technology to document human rights abuses, individual citizens captured videos to document human and civil rights abuses. This includes a number of cases, not limited to, but including:
1)The murder of Oscar Grant who was shot by a BART police officer in 2009
2)The murder of Eric Garner who was put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in July 2014.
3)The dragging of Mido Macia’s, a Mozambican taxicab driver down the street by South African police.
4)The beating of Tareq Abu Khedeir, a Palestinian American, Israeli soldiers
Technology has not only served as an important tool in documenting abuses, but also in advocating on and mobilizing citizens to participate in social justice efforts. One prime example, is the torture of Egyptian citizen Khalid Said. Shortly after Said’s brutal torture and consequent death, a Facebook page called “We are all Khalid Said,” was launched and numerous videos were uploaded and circulated on YouTube which not only documented graphic images of the abuse he suffered, but which also served to mobilize the Egyptian citizenry.
Other examples of videos used to document abuses, include the work of the so called “Targuist Sniper,” who filmed officers in Morocco who were bribing motorists. As a result of his videos, the Moroccan government, placed videos around the city to monitor future abuses by police officers.
Witness, an organization that empowers citizens to take action against human rights abuses started a Human Rights Channel with the goal of verifying citizen videos and helping to disseminate them to powerful actors who can affect change. To date, Witness has collected hundreds of videos from citizens all over the world and has as part of this collection, a compilation of videos from 2013. More information about the project can be found here and the video compilation can be viewed here. The Human Rights Channel of Wtiness also released its 2014 compilation, which you can view below:
While the use of video has emerged as a powerful tool to document abuses, there are several concerns in using this technology. In this documentary, 10 Tactics, one particular concern that is raised is that of consent. In other words, is consent obtained by those being filmed and if they there is consent, the question of whether participants fully understand the implications of being videos that may be widely disseminated is of critical importance.
Another issue that emerges when considering the use of video includes the verification of the source. As videos documenting human rights abuses are often dismissed as inauthentic, an initiative called The Citizen Evidence Lab was launched to assist in determining the authenticity. One of their videos provides instructions for human rights activists and practitioners alike with resources to verify videos. A dialogue with human rights practitioners working on various issues is captured on the New Tactics in Human Rights website here, providing additional tips on how to make videos that can be used for evidence.
Along these lines of source verification, is the degree to which videos can be admitted into testimony or evidence in a court of law. Human rights lawyers and advocates alike have had variable success in admitting such evidence into court. Wendy Betts, from the International Bar Association participated in a New Tactics Dialogue and spoke about the use of video in an ICC case concerning Darfur.
Social Media and Human Rights:
The use of social media in documenting human rights abuses has burgeoned. Not only are social media platforms utilized to disseminate videos, they are also used as tools in their own right. In addition, social media has been used to not only document abuses of the state, but also abuses inflicted on citizens by other citizens. Moreover, twitter also serves the purpose of raising awareness of various abuses and generating support from the global community who are often asked to raise their voices.
Twitter and Facebook are among the most widely used social media tools for combatting human rights abuses and is also widely used in the peacebuilding field (see for example, Dr. Zelizer’s guide on tweeting for peace and social change here). Hashtag activism, as it is often referred to involves thematic categories that focus on highlighting some type of abuse that is occurring in the world. Those concerned with the issue are then encouraged to tweet using the hashtag and not only draw attention to the issue but also target individuals who may be in the position to affect some sort of change. For example, Amnesty International launched a campaign aimed at addressing human rights abuses in Bahrain and asked activists to tweet at the State Department to ask them to take action. The press release calling for the action can be accessed here. The campaign succeeded in not only drawing attention to rights abuses in Bahrain, but in actually getting a response from the State Department.
A recent example of the use of twitter to address human rights issues, was hashtag #bringbackourgirls. This hashtag was started by Nigerian activists on the ground and soon went viral, capturing the support of the everyone from the common citizen to Michelle Obama. With the use of twitter as a tool, the kidnapping of these Nigerian girls became widely known and pressure was mounted on the Nigerian government to take action against Boko Haram, the group responsible for the kidnapping.
On May 17, 2013 the hashtag #GTMO17 was launched by anonymous, to draw attention to the 100th day of a hunger strike that was happening at Guantanamo in last year. Activists encouraged to tweet on various aspects related to Guantanamo, not limited to, but including the enduring problem of torture, and the fact that over 80 prisoners at that time were cleared for release but still continued to be detained. The twitter campaign was also aimed at highlighting the names of those who had died in prison. What made this campaign especially effective was the fact the online campaign was supplemented with offline actions such as protests at the White House, seen in the picture below:
Another approach that has been taken in the realm of hashtag activism is that related more strictly to raising awareness of a current and/or ongoing injustice. Moreover, this particular hashtag was designed to broaden the discussion In the United States for example, a hashtag that has emerged from the recent non-indictments of police officer who both killed Black men, is #crimingwhilewhite. The hashtag attempts to highlight the double standards that are enforced and which allow Whites to get away with crimes that would otherwise have resulted in significant repurcussions for people of color, and most notably Blacks. Though this hashtag serves in some way to highlight these double standards, rather than illuminating this fact to people of color in the United States, the hashtag in many ways simply adds insult to injury. Valenti (2014) commits on the problematic nature of this particular hashtag, asserting that despite the intended effect, this hashtag shifts attention back on to those who have privilege, White people. Getting to this point and the idea that such messages require more substantive action, Valenti (2014) states that: “White people acknowledging white privilege is important, but in the midst of national tragedies, tweeting about how you got away with criminal acts feel like a performance of awareness that you are privileged rather than what we really need – a dismantling of the power obtained through that privilege.”
Though twitter has been effective in drawing attention to human rights abuses, criticisms of using it as a tool by itself center on the fact that these campaigns are not likely to accomplish anything by themselves. Thus, activists seeking to create substantive and impactful change are encouraged to challenge abuses on and offline. This article speaks to many of these concerns in the context of the #bringbackourgirls campaign and #kony2012 as examples and provides suggestions on how to conceptualize twitter as a part of a larger strategy for social change. Moreover, the example of the #crimingwhilewhite, points to a different problem, that of shifting the attention away from the problem that which the hashtag was intended to address in the first place.
Other critiques that have been leveraged against hashtag activism is that addressing issues of abuses in this way, ignores the nuance and complexity of the situation, which leads to activism that is less informed and which is more non-committal. In this vein, Keating (2014) argues that, viewers get interested when they hear about evil monsters like the LRA or Boko Haram that just need to be stopped. When they learn more about the issue and find out that, lo and behold, the world is a very complicated place, that killing the monster won’t be so easy and that there are larger issues in play beyond the monster itself, they lose interest.” Others have criticized hashtag activism as activism that often arises from the concerns of those with privilege, with in many cases becomes evident through the patrionizing or condescending tone that is taken. Further, as Dewey (2014) notes, hashtag activism, while often having organic roots, was, in the case of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, co-opted by individuals outside of the situation. Another important critique of hashtag activism is that while some issues garner widespread public support, once the issue fades from the spotlight, there are few committed activists and advocates left to further promote the cause. In other words, hashtag activism often serves as a temporary form of acting on issue without the long-term commitment that is needed to create substantive change. This is one article that speaks to this issue. Additionally, as Srivastasa (2014) argues, the issue that which twitter hashtags seek to address, continue long after the popularity of an issue dies down. In the case of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, while we may perhaps be one step closer to finding the young Nigerian girls, little if any attention is dedicated to finding them now.
Similar to twitter, Facebook has been used to document abuses in addition to raising awareness and serving as a platform through which individuals can express their solidarity with those being victimized. For example, a community page was launched on Facebook to draw attention to the girls kidnapped in Nigeria. The page provides updates to over 200,000+ Facebook users who have liked the page, which includes a daily count of the number of days the girls have been missing. Additionally, the page houses photos with individuals expressing their solidarity, for example by holding signs with the #bringbackourgirls.
Another example of a Facebook campaign, is that of the Kurd Men for Equality. The campaign was launched to after government officials sentenced criminals to dress in women’s clothing as punishment. To push back against the sexism and misogyny, embodied in this punishment, Kurdish men began taking pictures of themselves and posting them on Facebook.
Other Tools in Technology for Monitoring Human Rights:
Crowdsource mapping for human rights has become an increasingly popular method of documenting abuses and for empowering individual actors who face and/or witness abuses. In addition, the benefits of crowd source mapping are that they can provide an alternative narrative of the state concerning abuses. This article provides an overview about crowdsource mapping and ways in which it has been used to challenge ongoing rights abuses.
There are numerous examples of the use of crowdsource mapping to combat rights abuses. For example, in Egypt, a country that has a particularly high incidence of sexual harassment and assault prompted the creation of a platform called HarassMap. HaarassMap uses crowdsourcing of online and mobile technologies to map the occurrence of both in Egypt. Through this platform women in Egypt can not only report sexual harassment and assault anonymously, while providing the Egyptian community the data necessary to show that sexual harassment and assault are indeed prevalent issues in Egypt. Another example of crowdsourcing human rights abuses from Kenya, where the Ushahidi platform was used to monitor election violence These are just a few examples as like tools mentioned above, using technology in this way also presents challenges in terms of verifying information. This article speaks to some of the challenges in regards to the Ushahidi platform.
This guide has attempted to provide a brief overview of some of the technologies that have been used to document and combat human rights abuses. Moreover, the guide has also addressed the ways in which social media, for example has worked in the service of human rights protection by raising awareness of abuses and calling for responsible and/or powerful parties to act. Last, but not least, the guide also explored the ways in which social media has been used as a means through which global citizens can express their solidarity with one another. It is important to note that the technologies above are by no means an exhaustive list and for those interested in learning more about technology for human rights, I would encourage visiting New Tactics in Human Rights and the Tactical Technology Collective and the Engine Room.
As with all technologies, those outlined above come with risks. Thus, human rights advocates and practitioners alike are encouraged to think about the ways in which these technologies may potentially harm their own communities for those working on the grassroots level or the communities that they are advocating for.
As always feedback is welcome and I would encourage those of you with experience to contribute to a discussion with the following questions in mind:
1) Have you utilized a form of technology to address a human rights abuse? If so, can you talk about your experiences and in particular any form of successes or challenges that you had?
2) What, in your opinion, are some creative ways that the various technologies can be used to advance human rights monitoring, documentation, awareness raising, or showing of solidarity?
3) Are there particular social media campaigns addressing some aspect of human rights issues that resonated with you or ones that you disagreed with in terms of intent and/or outcome? If so, can you provide examples?
4) What sort of offline actions (if any) do you think are necessary complements to online activism for human rights?
5) In what ways can the use of the technologies described above, be used in the service of peacebuilding and conflict resolution? Do you have examples of specific campaigns that you have lead and/or know of others that you found to be particularly effective?
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