The post-World War II period has witnessed the exponential rise of public and non-governmental fact-finding commissions at national, regional and global levels to investigate numerous allegations of massive human rights violations. The initial mandate of human rights fact-finding missions was to establish the truth of a given incident. However, over the years, the mandate of these accountability entities has kept shifting depending on the situation at hand. From the traditional role of merely obtaining deeper knowledge of a specific incident, some fact-finding missions are now charged with the mandate of documenting abuse of international human rights law to ensure accountability for violations. Examples include missions on Myanmar (2016), Syria (2011), South Sudan (2016), among others.
Because of the mandate shift, some missions have incorporated technology in the execution of their powers. The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIMM) in its report, considered as first-hand information, “satellite imagery from reliable sources, authenticated video and photo material.” In addition, paragraph 35 of the same report quotes a Facebook post by the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing which exposed “the nature, scale and organization of the operations” and suggested “a level of preplanning and design by the Tatmadaw leadership” while committing atrocities on the population. As such, among other sources, it is noted that the IIMM relied on “Facebook posts to support significant findings on the planning of the violence and on genocidal intent.” It is therefore a plausible conclusion that the use of social media to gather evidence of human rights violations in Myanmar demonstrates the power of technology in supporting human rights and accountability processes like fact-finding missions.
In Syria, the initial reports of use of chemical weapons were widely circulated on social media. In its report, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which was tasked to conduct a Fact-Finding Mission, partly relied on “open-source materials” like videos and photos to compare with material directly collected by the team. An analysis of digital information “indicated exposure to a rapidly incapacitating or a highly toxic substance” which contributed reasonable grounds to believe the use of chemical weapons by the regime. This report shows how open source evidence is facilitating human rights accountability processes like FFMs. Aronson cites other cases in Nigeria and Ukraine in which videos were used to support human rights advocacy and accountability.
However, whereas technologically-generated open source evidence can point to a violation of human rights, it solely is not conclusive. It has been argued for example that “like all other forms of evidence, video is not a magic bullet or panacea that will put an end to atrocities.” This is true because videos alone cannot prove a case. In the Syrian case, it was reported that the conclusion of the investigation did not rely on open source data. This is because of the need for corroboration. The requirement for corroboration means that high dependence on technology to hold violators accountable is inadequate. This limitation brings to the fore the need for human contact requiring human rights defenders to go the extra mile to look for eyewitnesses and other forms of evidence to back up the evidence obtained using technology.
Some legal scholars like Bantekas and Oette acknowledge that the use of technology can sometimes be resource-intensive, and the limited resources may not properly manage the spontaneous nature of violations. Additionally, use of technology requires a certain level of skillset which many human rights defenders might lack. Land and Aronson opine that the use of remote sensing, big data, data-visualization techniques, or even quantitative analysis may require knowledge and expertise outside the reach of most human rights advocacy organizations. At the same time, technology itself can be used to violate human rights. Social media played a determining role in Myanmar by facilitating the spread of hate speech prompting a senior UN official to remark that Facebook had turned into a beast.
Overall, human rights fact-finding missions have become an important accountability mechanism for rights violations. As technology continuously shapes the human rights field, it has a demonstrable position in supporting the work of fact-finding missions. Human rights actors need to harness the possibilities that technology brings but at the same time, deploy it cautiously due to its limitations as discussed in this piece.