Human Rights and Electronic Media: a CRL Study


In 2008, the Center for Research Libraries received an award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to assess the practices and technologies used by a variety of human rights monitoring groups in the United States, Mexico, Rwanda, and Russia to create and collect documentation, particularly electronic documentation.

From the collection of reports of violence following the 2008 Kenya elections to the widely shared videos of the protests of the Arab Spring, human rights organizations (HROs) around the world increasingly collect, create, and disseminate documentation in electronic form. While electronic “evidence” has been present through a variety of media for more than four decades, the recent explosion of communication technologies and emergence of social media–sharing tools via the Internet has offered unprecedented opportunities for the collection, use, and distribution of digital materials by advocacy, legal, and scholarly groups.

At the same time, the technology that allows for cell-phone video transmission and geo-referenced feeds (via Twitter or China’s Sina Weibo, for example) can be used by government or security forces charged with maintaining strict control of their respective populace to block—or worse, track—messages and information distributed by critics, protestors, and other human rights proponents. Tensions between wide accessibility and security of information present new challenges to HROs.

Analog collections such as the Guatemalan police archives (see related article in this issue) or the “Archive of Terror,” uncovered intelligence files documenting Paraguayan security forces in Operation Condor (1975), are examples of print materials surviving for years in obscurity. Groups such as the Cambodian Genocide Program and Brasil: Nunca Mais (see related article in this issue) secured and stored these collections of documents until they could be used by the source communities, often decades later.

With the fragility of digital data and rapid obsolescence of technology, troves of digital content probably would not survive if untended in similar conditions. The implications of the long-term use and storage of digital materials led CRL to propose the assessment of international and regional organizations’ use of electronic documentation and to create a set of recommendations for libraries, archives, and HROs to manage these assets.

Human Rights Organizations like Russia’s Memorial have constructed networks to collect and share information and reciprocal exchange of documentation.

Nature of Electronic Evidence

Human rights violations are diverse in nature, stemming from willful transgressions against—or neglect of—basic principles stated in the International Bill of Human Rights and subsequent instruments. Evidence of human rights violations, correspondingly, comes in many forms and is created for many purposes.

Human Rights electronic evidence is any information created or stored in digital form that is relevant to establishing the occurrence of a human rights event. It is collected on an increasingly diverse array of devices including computers, cell phones, video recorders, and cameras. It may consist of first-person (primary source) recordings of events; testimonials and statements after the event has occurred; news articles and videos; forensic evidence collected with the intention of establishing facts of what occurred; and any manner of additional materials collected through real-time monitoring or subsequent investigation. The types of documentation created may include, but are not limited to:

  • digitally generated images and digitally encoded audio and video
  • networked communications, such as e-mail and text messages
  • information created and disseminated via web-based technologies (web pages, blogs, Twitter posts, and other social media)
  • human- or computer-generated files in “born-digital” format (text files, wordprocessing documents, spreadsheets, data files, indices, logs)
  • database records, indices, reports, and supporting management systems
  • records of transactions (including communication logs and financial transactions)
  • court records, testimonies, and supporting documentation gathered as a result of judicial processes, and
  • digitally converted evidence from content previously contained in analog formats (scanned images of a physical document, digitized audio or video, etc.).

Documentation “Lifecycle”

The “lifecycle of human rights documentation” presented here describes the multiple (and often overlapping) steps involved from the creation of documentation resulting from a human rights violation through to the final stages of long-term preservation and maintenance of the evidence. CRL’s study seeks to document and describe the various types of electronic evidence being collected today, the uses of such material by organizations or political institutions, and the ultimate destination of that material. Equally important is the potential of a secondary lifecycle in which the stored information is used for later purposes such as scholarship, further social action, and memory initiatives.

In the documentation lifecycle of human rights violations, evidence is first generated pertaining to a particular event. Where an act has occurred by a perpetrator (government body or non-state actors) against a victim, the types of evidence created may include physical and documentary evidence, as well as testimonials or supporting information captured after the fact.

Collecting evidence of sudden and disruptive human rights abuses at the time of an actual event is difficult; the nature of these events makes them an accidental opportunity, rather than a deliberate plan of action. New technologies hold particular promise for this type of event. Efforts by groups such as WITNESS (video advocacy) and Ushahidi (crowd-sourced reports via SMS) demonstrate new approaches by rights organizations to use digital technologies for evidence collection and crisis response, as well as for longer-term human rights campaigns.

HROs and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) play an important role in monitoring human rights events in troubled areas. In the documentation lifecycle, monitors collect information, verify and authenticate such data, and use the information to address immediate human rights problems. While HROs are often the first-responders to a human rights crisis, monitoring usually occurs over a protracted period of time, aided by personal contacts, organized processes of information gathering, and, increasingly, technological tools.

First-hand fact gathering, victim and witness interviews, and analysis of data all are increasingly conducted and manipulated in electronic format. Many monitoring organizations use MP3 recorders, video cameras, and digital cameras to document events and witness testimony. The University of California, Berkeley Human Rights Center, employs handheld smart phones (equipped with solar chargers) to collect survey data and record interviews on the human impact of violence in Central African Republic, among other areas. The Satellite Sentinel Project monitors potential hotspots in Sudan through satellite imagery analysis combined with field reports. SwiftRiver (an Ushahidi initiative) seeks to evaluate the first flood of data from a crisis area through semantic analysis and verification of posts.

As ongoing documentation of human rights violations continues to build, the lifecycle of data takes a variety of paths, with different intended uses and temporal values. Media outlets may pick up and broadcast information to inform the public of occurring events. HROs and IGOs responsible for collecting information may pursue additional evidence or further testimonies to corroborate a case or build toward a larger advocacy campaign. Organizations disseminate findings through reports, press releases, and other formats to mobilize action or affect policy change. HROs with a legal focus may conduct further documentation to prepare a case for litigation, defense, or other means of transitional justice.

Ushahidi, a nonprofit tech company, uses open source software for information collection.

The significance of the electronic dimensions of this stage of the lifecycle is easily evident. The dissemination of media information and advocacy material via the Internet has fundamentally transformed how HROs conduct campaigns. Online tools such as YouTube and Flickr, as well as social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, make it easy to distribute images, stories, and other literature. “Citizen journalists” (contributors to blogs, podcasts, wikis, and a variety of social media sites such as Global Voices Online) produce content that may not reach mainstream media outlets, as well as individuated analysis that may provide context to particular events.

In this documentation stage, evidence undergoes a process of refinement and authentication. Various actors (media, HROs, and independent third parties) attempt to verify the accuracy of the reported human rights violations and the authenticity of the available evidence. They trace electronic evidence back to its source, whenever possible, or check against a number of indicators to gauge its reliability. This process is iterative and rarely straightforward, but still an important part of transforming “documentation” into “evidence.”

In many cases, documentation projects engage in collaborative networking among similar organizations to provide substantiation to cases, produce a richer story about the past, and further the purposes of each organizations’ efforts. Networking and reciprocal exchange of documentation occurs in a variety of formal or informal settings, dependent on the landscape and conditions in which the organizations work. HROs such as Memorial in Russia and Ibuka in Rwanda have constructed networks of organizations to collect and share information. Less-formal networks (such as grassroots organizations in Chiapas, Mexico) exist in regions without robust support for civil society structures. While local organizations may pursue their individual agendas, the process of centralizing and sharing information provides a broader venue for awareness and promotes more rigorous documentation practices.

Documentation at this stage may also undergo normalization and structured organization, depending on the intended use of the content. HURIDOC’s OpenEvsys project provides HROs with software to document and manage information on human rights violations, replete with controlled vocabularies to codify types of events, victims, perpetrators, and sources. Organizations such as the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Russia use this software to document violations and display organized information over the web. The Mexican organization Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos, which advocates its mission as “Todos los derechos para todas y todos” (RedTdT), uses a modified version of the software and thesaurus to record violations and establish relationships between cases and registrants.

These organizational processes help documentation assessment, a key activity of HROs and monitoring agencies. Collection of evidence conducted in a consistent, organized manner can demonstrate whether trends or patterns of violations exist. Identifying patterns of serious violations will strengthen evidence and may signify that more serious human rights violations have occurred. As information produced by smaller HROs is passed on to mid-sized specialized groups and larger national and international organizations, the structured and processed data may be used to assess broader patterns of violations.

The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in assessment of human rights violations is a topic of growing interest around the globe. Amnesty International and its various sections and affiliated groups submit reports and field notes through its Amnesty Digital Asset Management system for internal assessment and reporting. HURIDOCS provides training and capacity building for other rights organizations in documentation practices, and develops software and documentation systems specifically tailored to the human rights context. Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) designs and builds information management solutions and conducts statistical analysis on behalf of human rights projects. Groups such as the Network for Human Rights Documentation–Burma (ND-Burma) use this software to centralize information that Burma human rights groups collect through interviews and other fact-finding efforts.

It should be noted that assessment is not the sole realm of human rights organizations. Academic institutes (for example, the Measurement and Human Rights Program at the Kennedy Center for Human Rights Policy), research centers (such as the Global Network Initiative at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society), public policy institutes (e.g., the Center for Democracy & Technology), and individuals also engage in assessment of rights issues and specific violations.

The end-use stage of the documentation lifecycle can be difficult to define, highly dependent on the mission of the organization and objectives for collecting information. Some of the stated purposes for documentation efforts studied in CRL’s assessment of various institutions include (but are not limited to):

  • to create an accurate historical record
  • to provide a voice for the persecuted
  • to educate and inform the population to promote respect for human rights
  • to develop appropriate community responses to alleviate suffering or prevent further abuses
  • to advocate for transitional justice (truth commissions, prosecutions, reparations, etc.)
  • to pursue accountability for atrocities and human rights abuses
  • to affect policy change and reforms among governing bodies at a local, national, or international level, and
  • to commemorate the past and preserve the memory of an event or conflict.

Each of these purposes may demand differing levels of preparation and scrutiny in the collection and use of documentation, electronic or otherwise. Reports of events may be picked up by mainstream media for current awareness purposes without significant verification requirements (reports on the 2009 Iran protests, for example, relied heavily on crowd-sourced information via Twitter delivered from a particular demographic, which strongly influenced the narrative presented in the Western media). By contrast, digital videos or other evidence collected for prosecutorial purposes demand rigorous standards for establishing authenticity, reliability, integrity, and chain of custody.

Whatever means HROs use to define success of a particular advocacy strategy, once the appropriate outcome is achieved, organizations wishing to support further action in the future must determine the long-term utility and retention requirements of electronic documentation. Many large and established HROs such as WITNESS and Amnesty International have implemented data management systems and protocols to support the organization and storage of evidence, supporting data (and applied metadata), field notes, and communications surrounding these items.

More commonly, however, smaller institutions lack basic digital capacity to store and maintain digital evidence (much less the electronic transactions of the organization itself). Issues of trust, security of information, technical obsolescence, and even reliable Internet access can all prevent organizations from relying on electronic storage solutions. In these events, collaboration with external trusted partners may be a viable solution. The University of Texas at Austin’s Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) has established digital preservation partnerships with organizations that create human rights documentation to preserve and make accessible the historical record of genocide and human rights violations. The HRDI provides organization-specific training, infrastructure, and ongoing support. The partner institutions maintain control and ownership of the digital files, while allowing Texas to secure digital copies for safekeeping. Other institutions, such as Columbia University’s Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research and Duke University’s Human Rights Archive capture the print and electronic records of specific HROs, including (via web harvesting) the electronic publications and documentation on the organizations’ websites.

Use of Electronic Documentation for Legal Purposes

As described above, documentation may be prepared for use in formal human rights investigations and judicial processes. Organizations such as Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Frayba) in Mexico and Memorial (Russia) assume legal representation for victims of injustice so that their cases can be litigated. These organizations assemble case files of testimony and supporting evidence (including electronic documentation) to pursue remedies in national or international instances, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights.

Electronic evidence used to establish the grounds for indictments, or to provide the basis for an international investigation, is subject to increased scrutiny by government and intergovernmental authorities. Through its assessment, CRL has produced two detailed reports describing the conditions under which electronic evidence may be considered as evidence in courts of law. Lucy Thomson’s report on the precedents and current challenges of electronic evidence in legal settings provides a thorough background to the issues of authentication and reliability. The second report, produced by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice— New Wine in Old Wineskins? New Problems in the Use of Electronic Evidence in Human Rights Investigations and Prosecutions—describes legal issues surrounding electronic evidence in the international criminal courts and human rights investigations. These reports are accessible via the project web page, along with numerous other reports and case studies.


While the lifecycle of electronic documentation of human rights violations as described above presents a linear progression of documentation, the path is rarely clear-cut, as CRL’s assessment of various organizations makes clear. Nor is the lifecycle truly a closed circuit. Sometimes the intended uses of a piece of evidence help define its format and content; at other times the evidence is first captured and then used later within unanticipated contexts. Materials collected for advocacy purposes may be reused in legal processes, which are then stored, discovered, and analyzed later for scholarly purposes. CRL’s Human Rights Electronic Evidence Assessment report documents in more detail some of the conditions in which evidence is used for “downstream” purposes. The regenerative properties of evidence and its diverse uses underscore the importance of maintaining and protecting the resources in the longterm. Libraries, archives, and human rights organizations must work in tandem to assure that responsible stewardship of this data is maintained for future uses.