‘Berkeley Protocol’ Creates First Standards for Social Media as Evidence of War Crimes |
By Andrew Cohen
At the Nuremberg trials, harrowing video footage of Nazi concentration camps comprised the first use of film as evidence in international criminal prosecutions. On December 1, some 75 years later, a virtual event broadcast live from Nuremberg, Geneva, and Berkeley officially launched the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations.
A three-year joint effort by Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center (HRC) and the U.N. Human Rights Office, the Protocol marks the first global guidelines for using publicly available information online — including photos, videos, and other content posted to social media sites — as evidence in international criminal and human rights investigations.
“While an explosion of online information — sometimes captured by people in war zones who take great risk to do so — has shed light on human rights abuses and potential war crimes around the world, lawyers, journalists, researchers, and advocates need to know how to handle this information ethically and effectively,” says HRC Executive Director Alexa Koenig.
She calls the Berkeley Protocol “a living document that will help strengthen war crimes investigations using 21st century methods, with the goal of improving justice and accountability worldwide.”
It’s a new tool for strengthening the use of video and other digital information to seek justice for human rights atrocities. Based on extensive research, six workshops, and consultations with more than 150 experts, it is being published in all languages of the United Nations.
The launch event began with remarks from the Lord Mayor of Nuremberg, U.N. Human Rights Office Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, and former commissioner Navi Pillay, past president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
“Technology can help us see the distant, the obscured, and the unimaginable — and serve as concrete proof of violations of human rights and international law,” Bachelet says. “In an era of widespread misinformation and disinformation, the Protocol gains even more importance. This new tool is, ultimately, about protecting human rights and advancing justice.”
Primed to produce
Koenig, HRC Faculty Director Eric Stover, and Director of Law and Policy Lindsay Freeman made up the Berkeley Protocol’s coordinating committee, with support from HRC Investigations Lab Director Stephanie Croft and former Berkeley Law students Andrea Trewinnard ’19 and Elise Baker ’20.
“While the Berkeley Protocol’s creation has required a herculean effort involving hundreds of people over several years, we see it as a foundation on which this community of practice can continue to build,” Stover says. “This is just the beginning, and we invite others to develop, adapt, and refine these standards as we collectively work to ensure justice for the world’s gravest crimes.”
With a long history of working on issues at the cross section of science, technology, and law, HRC was well positioned to spearhead this effort.
Launched in 2016, the center’s Investigations Lab is the first university-based open source investigations unit to discover and verify human rights violations and potential war crimes — with over 75 students who collectively speak 30 languages contributing verified information to international NGOs, news organizations, and legal partners. As the lab’s prominence and role helping human rights lawyers collect and analyze information from social media grew, more questions flowed in from organizations worldwide.
“We couldn’t answer most of them, including specifics about how user-generated content should be collected and stored to ensure its utility in future legal proceedings,” Koenig says. “We realized we weren’t alone in struggling to make sense of this relatively new field of practice and that we needed to meet the moment.”