Pictures of Atrocity: Turning Video Footage into Evidence of War Crimes

Watching grainy footage of the terror unfolding in Homs, the sense of desperation and the need to record material of use is sickeningly palpable. But aside from causing shock and dismay, the material being collected by smart phones and video cameras has the potential to provide documentation which could serve as critical evidence in future criminal trials.

During the first case at the International Criminal Court, against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the prosecution supported its argument that the accused recruited child soldiers by showing video footage of children who were allegedly members of his armed group. Now, just five years later, such video footage is increasingly available through social media networks; it was recently been used by the ICC prosecutor as evidence of the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and  forms part of the evidence against Saif al-Qaddafi.

In documenting such violence, proof of the date, time and location—so-called meta-tagging—is central to verifying and corroborating the facts. This can be done either through the date stamp on the recording device, verbally at the start of recording, or by recording images of calendars, clocks, the daily newspapers, or images of landmarks, road signs, or through including the GPS coordinates in a YouTube upload.

Equally important is demonstrating the status of the victim. Civilians—people who are not engaged in hostilities—have a protected status. This can be established by showing whether the victims were carrying weapons or wearing military uniforms, or alternatively, whether they were acting peacefully. If the victim was the member of a group within the population which was singled out by the attackers, it is important to show anything that can help to demonstrate that the victim was a member of that group. For example, the crime of persecution is established if there is a part of the population that is targeted on grounds of nationality, ethnicity, religion, political belief, cultural identity or gender.

Facts establishing the broader context of violence are central to proving an international criminal case. This helps demonstrate the scale of the event, such as wide shots, images from taller buildings or elevation allowing a sense of the number of people present, both civilians and perpetrators. Images from different angles can corroborate this, as can recordings of radio broadcasts or other communication showing simultaneous, synchronized or repeated violence at other locations.

Demonstrating who could be responsible is ultimately the crux of any potential case. International criminal cases are targeted at those most responsible for the crimes. Such persons might not even be present at crime scene. Responsibility must then be deduced from the identity of the perpetrators and the links to their senior leaders. For example, images that depict modes of communication can show that perpetrators at the crime scene were reporting events to members of the hierarchy, and identifying the mode of communication can help in subsequent seizure of communication records. Photographs of walkie-talkies, cell phones, radios or other communication devices can be critical.

Similarly, visual records of the means of transportation can help identify the affiliation of perpetrators. Uniforms are also key to understanding responsibility, particularly the color, insignia, badges, hats, helmets, footwear, or any indications of rank. Images of weaponry are also helpful. It is important to record images of all individuals and officials on the scene, even if some are not actively engaged in acts of violence since these people might be reporting events to their superiors or leaders.

The big question is, after evidence has been compiled and accumulated through social media - after the YouTube video is uploaded, after the photo is posted on Flickr and Facebook - what happens next? As is currently being demonstrated by the Security Council, sometimes the powers-that-be need to be pushed harder to listen—since Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty that set up the ICC, the court cannot pursue crimes in Syria unless asked to do so by the Security Council, as happened in Libya last year.

But through the accessibility of social media, ICC investigators and UN staff compiling evidence for independent commissions of inquiry have an additional source of information and evidentiary leads. Evidence and documentation of abuses can be the most compelling prerequisite to demands for protection. However, the decision to document abuses has the potential to increase the security risks for the persons collecting and those appearing in the material gathered. Capturing evidence and potential leads on international crimes is not a decision to be taken lightly. Some people may feel that they have no choice. But as smart phones proliferate among civilian populations, people are increasingly empowered to use technological and communication advances to push for accountability.

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