Alexa Koenig is the director of the Human Rights Center at University California Berkeley School of Law and a lecturer in residence in both law and legal studies. Justice Hub spoke to her as part of our long-running #MyJustice series. We started by asking her what she is working on right now:
Alexa Koenig: Our big project is thinking through on how we can help organisations around the world capture content from social media, cell phones and share it with legal actors who want to get justice for the war crimes and other human rights abuses.
At the moment we are trying to develop an international protocol on what are called open source investigations. Open source investigations are basically pulling material from public online places, to gather information on around the who, what, where, when, why and how atrocities are taking place all over the world. For example, we are working quite a bit right now on issues related to the conflict in Syria, also to what’s happening on the ground in Myanmar with discrimination against the Rohingya population.
Given the proliferation of smartphones and the fact that there are so many people on the ground documenting in real time on what’s taking place in these different populations – how do we grab that content, verify its authenticity and make sure it is what it claims to be and share it with people who are in a position to actually get some form of justice for the people who have been suffering? Or get it in the hands of human rights organisations who can turn it into products that allow the world to know what’s happening? So that these voices actually get some kind of amplification, with the goal of ultimately stopping some of the violence that we are seeing.
Justice Hub: How do you get an international protocol on open source investigations? It sounds like a huge amount of work.
Alexa Koenig: It is indeed a huge amount of work. I think the big part of it is really reaching out, understanding what other people have already learned as a part of the process of using social media to try and engender justice. And gathering that information and seeing what we can learn around best practices and even minimum standards for doing this work and doing it well.
Another piece of it is really deeply understanding the needs of courts and legal investigators to see what kinds of content they feel will help strengthen their cases and support the stories that survivors are telling around what they have experienced. I think when we can bring the NGO community and civil society on the ground in these different areas together with war crimes investigators we can hopefully get a pipeline and a flow of information that will strengthen these cases. And also strengthen the international justice community.
As a complement to that, we are really trying to also think through how you train a new generation of human rights activists and war crimes investigators to understand how to use digital content to strengthen the work that they are doing. So, one of the things that we are trying to do – hopefully right now – is take students from across disciplines, whether they are in computer science programs, law programs, journalism programs and help them understand how they can build a dossier that helps bring attention to much-needed areas in the world.
What I love about that effort is not only bringing their area of practice into the 21st century and having them gauge more digital content, but they can learn from each other. Journalists can be learning from lawyers and the law students, about the different legal principles and the elements of a crime, so that the information that the journalists are collecting can feed into kind of analysing those elements. You also have the lawyers who are learning from the journalists who have really pioneered a lot of the methods for combing digital information which efficiently and effectively, and how that can be useful to building the legal cases. And the computer scientists who can advise both groups about how to automate some of these processes. Given the scale of information that’s going on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, we often have to use these digital tools in order to comb and analyse that information effectively and efficiently. We have to do that in very smart and integrated ways.
Justice Hub: Where would you expect to see the first cases that use this kind of evidence?
Alexa Koenig: I think Syria is an excellent example of one of the first conflicts where there was such a proliferation of smartphones and other ways to capture audiovisual content. That’s where we really saw the first time where large quantities of information were going to YouTube which were being captured by human rights organisations and NGO´s. They have really helped to share information about what’s happening in the world.
Myanmar, I think, is another great example of a situation where the use of Facebook, given Facebook’s entry into that country in the early first part of the second decade of the 21st century. All of a sudden you have a new tool for communicating information and I think you saw a lot of the violence and the cost of violence really being perpetrated on online spaces which were very different from Syria. That’s great for war crimes investigators because it means that all of a sudden you get to issues like what were the intents of different people? In what ways were they calling for the potential eradication of a population? And it ultimately provides one more source of information for ultimately proving or establishing very difficult crimes to prove. For example, genocide. Getting little pieces of evidence to say who may be responsible for some of what’s taking place.
Justice Hub: But it’s difficult to see actual jurisdictions where those cases might move forward.
Alexa Koenig: I think that’s one of our biggest challenges right now – helping different jurisdictions actually have the capacity to receive this information and to analyse it and make sense of it. So one of the issues that we are hoping this protocol will address is how do we start to disseminate information that will help judges, lawyers and investigators understand the potential value of this content. How it can be analysed, how you would know an open source investigation is a good investigation versus why one that maybe puts a lot of bells and whistles on the topic but at its heart may not have been done with the greatest amount of specifics.
Justice Hub: What does justice mean to you?
Alexa Koenig: Putting on my sociologist’s hat, there’s a whole line of work by scholars in the procedural justice room who have found is that people just want to be heard, they want their stories to be known. There’s an excellent book out there called The Life-giving Gift of Acknowledgment and I’ve always found that to be such a fundamentally interesting concept. The heart of the author’s analysis is this idea that all human beings want to be acknowledged.
I think, given all the research we’ve done with witnesses in international courts and with victims, that they say over and over: “I just want to share my story with someone. For someone to understand the life of a person that I love who was killed or the community that’s been so devastated by this.” I think our duty as individuals, for those of us who haven’t been in these conflict zones, is really to open our ears and listen and give that back that to the communities who’ve suffered such enormous pain.