YEMEN (OPEN SOURCE) PROJECT
A short video outlining the partnership between GLAN and Bellingcat to investigate war-crimes in Yemen.
In Yemen, airstrikes by the Saudi/UAE led coalition have killed thousands and destroyed extensive property in violation of international humanitarian law – but the Coalition and other powerful actors often deny the attacks ever happened or try to downplay the civilian harm.
There is a wealth of digital content online which can corroborate witness testimony and could even represent key evidence for accountability efforts, but it is a significant task to find the relevant content and separate the reliable from the unreliable. By following some core legal principles, open source investigators can increase the reliability of the evidence uncovered through online investigations.
Our project with Bellingcat and Yemeni Archive seeks to put principles into practice when conducting open-source investigations using audiovisual evidence of Coalition attacks in Yemen. Our methodology aims to balance adherence to procedural standards on legal evidence with workability. The information can be made available to litigators, national investigators and prosecutors, who can use it as “lead information” for their own investigations or as primary evidence.
This project is is part of a broader workstream that seeks to promote accountability for Saudi/UAE-led coalition aistrikes in Yemen. Click here for our Yemen home page.
Since March 2015, an intensive airstrike campaign by a Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen has targeted markets, farms, family homes, civilian vehicles, civilian infrastructure and objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.
The Coalition’s major weapons suppliers which make these airstrikes possible are located in the UK and the US. These companies transfer fighter jets and bombs under government licenses, but legal accountability efforts in third countries have sometimes been hampered by the quality and quantity of evidence demonstrating that these events are taking place. Seeking out evidence for accountability for alleged violations of international law forms a key part of GLAN's Yemen work which focuses on the involvement of powerful European and American actors in these violations.
An expert workshop convened by GLAN in 2018 considered the potential for open-source intelligence (OSINT) to be used as evidence in legal proceedings. Discussions with expert participants from Amnesty International, the Human Rights Center at University of California, Berkeley, Bellingcat, Syrian Archive and Forensic Architecture set in motion plans to harness OSINT as evidence of international law violations in Yemen.
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
OSINT in the context of Yemen.
We heard from many Yemeni sources that getting reliable information is particularly difficult if independent NGOs or journalists cannot get timely access for on-the-ground investigations. Sometimes, a video or photograph posted on social media can give vital clues as to the location, cause, perpetrator or effects of an attack, or can corroborate witness evidence. Occasionally, attacks themselves are even captured on video and posted online.
The nature of OSINT is such that little to nothing is known about the source and creation of the content, which can mean that it is presumed unreliable as evidence. GLAN has focused on what can and cannot be drawn from such audiovisual evidence in the context of showing events that may have violated international law. For example, a propaganda video showing a civilian building that has been “pancaked”, if its location can be verified, can be evidence that the building was hit by an airstrike, even if other information taken from the video cannot be relied on (e.g. supervised interviews with victims).
OSINT can be evidence of the lawfulness of attacks. If a passer-by films civilian rescuers in an open area being hit by a second “double-tap” airstrike, this can, in conjunction with other information, serve as evidence that the attacker knowingly killed civilians. Likewise, if an investigator verifies though OSINT videos, the exact location where a bomb landed in a crowded market, it can be combined with satellite imagery to infer that the attacker knew they would kill high numbers of civilians when the attack was launched.
Hackathon participants collating and verifying evidence across a number of controversial airstrikes while following a methodology designed by GLAN
Developing a methodology
GLAN reviewed the principles of evidence in the UK and other jurisdictions and consulted with technology experts to produce a draft workflow for open source investigators. It was clear that such a methodology would need to strike a balance between being practical as well as robust.
To test and further refine the methodology, GLAN and Bellingcat co-hosted a “Hackathon” event in 2019 with objective of investigating and publishing reports on alleged airstrikes in Yemen. Thanks to generous support from the Open Society Foundation, the New York Times, and Channel 4, the event brought together world-class open-source investigators, lawyers and journalists. Investigators were able to simultaneously test GLAN's new, light-touch methodology. Evidence preservation was carried out by our partners at Mnemonic (Yemeni Archive, Syrian Archive).
Since this time GLAN and Bellingcat have continued to revise the OSINT methodology and during the completion of further investigations into attacks causing grave civilian harm. A revised version will be published in advance of the release of Bellingcat’s second round of investigations. In the meantime in original methodology that was trialled at the Hackathon can be accessed here.
Findings and impact
Through the investigations that have been published so far, Bellingcat have identified a number of major contradictions between open-source evidence and the findings of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition's Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT).
OSINT investigations have identified and verified a significant number of videos that assist in the analysis of alleged breaches of international law. Much of the evidence uncovered has been entered into our evidence database where it is combined with direct evidence (e.g. from witnesses), Coalition statements and NGO reports. This information will form an integral part of an upcoming legal action, details of which will be released during 2020.
Using evidence gathered using GLAN's methodology Bellingcat made a submission to the UK's Committee on Arms Export Controls.
The OSINT investigations were also referenced in representations made by the legal team of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade in their letter sent to the UK Governments Legal Department following a favourable decsion from the UK's Court of Appeal.
The project with Bellingcat and Yemeni Archive is ongoing and can be scaled outwards to other projects and situations.