Online hunting of volunteers for war crimes in Ukraine

Aiden spends his time geolocating evidence of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. He will receive a photo or video from the Internet assigned to him and will be tasked with using tools such as satellite aerial photography and Google Maps Street View to confirm the location. Once Aiden and a fellow volunteer agree on a location (Eden says helping someone else corroborate evidence helps avoid narrow-mindedness), the Bellingcat researcher checks the information himself. Then the cycle starts anew.

It’s an impressive effort, but Lindsay Freeman, director of legal and policy affairs at the UC Berkeley Center for Human Rights, says the sheer number and variety of efforts is a problem. Despite their good intentions, some of them may simply be too far from the burden of proof needed to prosecute war crimes.

A local resident looks at the shelled area on March 5, 2022 in Markhalovka, Ukraine. Regional police said six people were killed, including a child, and four were injured in a Russian airstrike on the village southwest of Kyiv.


It is noteworthy that, until recently, there was no single document or group that set out rules on how to properly collect, archive and submit data from conflict zones for possible prosecution for war crimes. This is a problem that reflects the proliferation of international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the multitude of human rights and aid organizations that have varying powers and jurisdictions, and plays into the hands of war criminals who know they will never be able to -really face justice.

In 2020, Freeman helped draft Berkeley Protocol, an attempt to systematize the ethical use of information from open sources. The protocol, maintained by the United Nations, offers a set of rules on how to process and store digital data. Most of the document was briefed by Syria, Freeman said, and the fact that the different formats made collecting data there a very difficult task.

The protocol is the first step towards building a system for the flow of data coming from Ukraine, but Freeman admits it’s not enough. While many aid groups have adopted the Protocol, many others are set up differently and have their own internal systems for submitting information.

Freeman says the Berkeley Protocol also “isn’t really about crowdsourcing,” which has been a big factor not only in the war in Ukraine, but in other conflicts over the years. Increasing citizens’ access to technology and social media means that getting information directly from affected individuals to those in power has never been easier, but the Protocol sidesteps the question of how to properly document this information.

Part of the reason, according to Freeman, is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is selective about what evidence it allows, often favoring official sources like timestamped security cameras over shaky, pixelated camera footage. phones.

What the Berkeley Protocol exemplifies is a tug-of-war between what the International Criminal Court considers admissible evidence and crowdsourcing efforts to collect that evidence. While the Protocol represents a huge first step in building a stronger case against war criminals, it also represents an acknowledgment that the ICC is lagging behind in how people use technology, victims of war and bystanders alike. (The ICC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

None of this stops Aiden from continuing his efforts. “Sometimes I worry that the impact of this work may show up too late for the victims of this conflict, but I do think retrospective justice is still much better than no justice at all,” he says.

Correction: A previous version of the story that said Lindsey Freeman helped find the Berkeley Protocol has been corrected to say she helped oversee the drafting of the Berkeley Protocol. We sorry for the mistake.

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