Methodology for ONLINE OPEN Source INVESTIGATIONS
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About the PRoject
The fair and successful prosecution of atrocity crimes requires reliable evidence establishing not only that an event took place but that a specific perpetrator was individually criminally responsible. Efforts to prosecute such atrocity crimes can be hampered by the absence of such evidence, for example where official investigators cannot reach a given location promptly, where witnesses’ memories fade and change, or when there is simply not enough first-hand evidence. Even as universal jurisdiction prosecutions proceed and the international criminal court widens its caseload, perpetrators’ reliance on impunity seems to prevail, with fresh atrocities taking place regularly.
Meanwhile, the advent of social media and smartphones has combined to result in an unprecedented volume of online videos, and inevitably some of those videos can evidence key aspects of alleged atrocity crimes.
However, courts are unused to dealing with digital evidence whose origins are unknown, and there is a significant risk that the full potential for this content to be harnessed for legal and accountability purposes could be missed or delayed, especially if the information is deemed unreliable or inadmissible.
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GLAN and Bellingcat have been breaking new ground in the fight against impunity for atrocity crimes through ensuring that open source investigations can give rise to admissible, reliable evidence. Through years of collaboration, we have developed and tested a step-by-step methodology for investigators to follow which will ensure that courts can put aside any skepticism and place appropriate trust in open source information. Its aim is to ensure that any material discovered by Bellingcat’s dedicated Justice and Accountability Unit is gathered in accordance with rules on admissibility of evidence so as to make it suitable for use in future legal proceedings and other accountability processes. It is the product of years of testing and development and has benefited from input from legal and investigative practitioners and the process can be adopted and used by investigators anywhere.
This collaboration began during a 2018 workshop hosted by GLAN, Swansea University and Garden Court Chambers, to consider the potential for digital evidence in the fight for accountability for atrocities in Yemen. Work on this Methodology began shortly afterwards when lawyers at GLAN undertook a review of evidentiary principles in consultation with investigators at Bellingcat, with a view to developing a set of simple steps which investigators could take to comply with those principles. Over the next four years the methodology was tested through a hackathon, investigations and a mock hearing. The collaboration and the development of this methodology has also given rise to a separate workstream within Bellingcat for accountability-focused investigations - this is known as the Justice & Accountability Unit.
On 15 December 2022, GLAN and Bellingcat launched the publication of the Methodology.
The open source Justice and Accountability Unit is a partnership with Bellingcat. At GLAN, it is led by Dearbhla Minogue and Siobhan Allen and Charlotte Andrews-Briscoe with input from Professor Yvonne McDermott and Dr. Ioannis Kalpouzos. The lead investigator at Bellingcat is Nick Waters, who is supported by Hannah Bagdasar and Charlotte Godart.
In the area of data protection, the project also benefits from the advice of Monika Sobiecki of Bindmans LLP, and Alex Bailin QC and Ben Silverstone of Matrix Chambers. Input on the criminal procedure aspects of the law of England and Wales relevant to the methodology was provided by Emilie Pottle of Temple Garden Chambers and Daniel Robinson of Red Lion Chambers. GLAN and Bellingcat also thank Helen Malcolm QC, Andrew Cayley QC, Joshua Kern and Shina Animashaun for their invaluable participation in our mock hearing exercise. The project’s procedures also benefit from an independent external review panel of experienced international criminal law practitioners. GLAN and Bellingcat are grateful to Mnemonic and HURIDOCS, whose preservation and databasing systems form a key component of the project.
our current projects
YEMEN Our open source project began as part of our organisations’ commitment to pushing for accountability for aerial attacks causing grave civilian harm in Yemen by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition.
Drawing on Bellingcat’s investigations into airstrikes in Yemen, GLAN has analysed the contribution made by online open source information where an assessment of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) is required. This study, conducted in conjunction with Dr Ioannis Kalpouzos of GLAN's Legal Action Committee, can be accessed here. For more on our work in relation to open source information and Yemen, see our Yemen case page.
UKRAINE: In response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, GLAN and Bellingcat is preparing to launch a set of investigations into alleged atrocity crimes taking place there. These investigations will follow the methodology and their findings will be made available to any national or international prosecutors who are gathering evidence of alleged crimes. The evidence will be arranged in an analysis database which can be searched and filtered. Preservation will be done by Mnemonic, an independent third-party organisation maintaining an archive of digital content from Ukraine, as it has done for Syria, Yemen and Sudan. On 10 and 11 March 2022, GLAN and Bellingcat gathered at Bindmans LLP in London to begin planning for this long-term project, and discussed all aspects of the investigation, preservation and databasing process, including data protection and privacy concerns, so that the evidence could have the greatest possible chances of successful introduction in criminal courts as evidence. Click here to find out more and please consider supporting our crowdfund.
Harnessing User-Generated Content in Accountability Efforts for International Law Violations in Yemen | Opinio Juris | 19 December 2019
How Global Legal Action Network is documenting digital evidence of airstrikes against civilians in Yemen | Huridocs | 12 November 2019
The Yemen Project: Open Source Investigations and the Law of War | Just Security [United States] | 23 September 2019
The Race to Archive Social Posts That May Prove Russian War Crimes | Wired Magazine | 11 April 2022
Ukraine: Online posts 'transform' war crimes documentation | BBC News | 17 April 2022
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