If there is to be any accountability for Russian war crimes in Ukraine, it will require carefully gathered evidence. The collection and preservation of digital media and other evidentiary material in Ukraine is a massive undertaking. It is being met by brave Ukrainian officials and local civil society groups operating in besieged cities and towns, as well as by an international coalition of human rights, open source intelligence and digital forensics researchers. This loose coalition is drawing strength from relationships formed with one another and lessons learned while investigating past conflicts, including in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and elsewhere.
The ongoing effort in Ukraine, then, can be seen as part of an evolution – or a maturation – of an expanding community of volunteers and professionals gathering user-generated evidence and open source intelligence. It may also represent a crucial test of whether the evidence produced by these methods can play a substantial role in securing convictions.
What follows is a snapshot of the effort in progress, based on interviews with more than a dozen individuals representing a sample of organizations involved in the work. It reveals some of the key challenges facing this growing field: the reliance on volunteers working in the midst of a conflict; security threats and coordination problems flowing from the over-collection of material; and the centrality of social media platforms that were never designed with atrocity documentation in mind. Still, the reality that prosecutions cannot succeed without evidence drives those doing the work.
See the essay on which this podcast is based here. Many thanks to Just Security’s Ryan Goodman for his editorial guidance on this effort.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.