Open source evidence – particularly user-generated content shared on social media – is of increasing importance to human rights investigations. Open source intelligence can help to overcome some of the logistical barriers, such as security and access to affected regions and witnesses, that investigators face. It has been heralded for its great democratizing potential, by hearing some of the voices that have traditionally been silenced in investigations. Drawing on a two-year research project and interviews with investigators from a range of fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry, and other investigations, this paper sets out some key findings on the perceived role of open source evidence in largescale human rights investigations. It examines this type of evidence’s increasing importance in shaping narratives and advocacy strategies, and reflects on some of the hidden impacts of these developments.
The last few years have seen the international community addressing international disputes through the establishment of quasi-judicial bodies, like Commissions of Inquiry. These bodies have inter alia a stark facet of therapeutic justice, meant to hear and address the suffering of civilians exposed to warfare acts, healing thus the wounds of a conflict. Yet, I would like to argue that in order for such wounds to close, accountability must come for the perpetrators of human rights or laws of war violations and this accountability cannot be asserted in the way Commissions of Inquiry conclude that civilians have sustained ‘serious mental harm’, without though any further elaboration on why any cited trauma symptoms coincide with the perception of what constitutes such harm, as this perception emerges from the international criminal courts’ jurisprudence.
International fact-finding has increasingly relied on large-scale data mining, data analytics and related computer and information technology to gather information about international conflict situations which would otherwise be hidden before the eyes of the international community due to their secrecy, remoteness or complexity. Big Data methods such as GIS/mapping information, economic indexing, open sources such as social media and AI have all transformed the methods and outcomes of international fact-finding. They also go hand-in-hand with the risk of violation of privacy rights under international human rights law and of the enhanced north-south divide in fact-finding. The paper argues that Big Data as both evidence and fact-finding tool, despite all those risks, does democratise international dispute settlement by providing endless empirical materials about secret, remote or complex international conflicts.