The process of documenting alleged human rights violations is notoriously complex. The access and resources required can often make comprehensive investigations impractical, creating an accountability gap that can allow perpetrators to deny wrongdoing or dismiss abuses as “isolated incidents.” The University of Essex, a UNAI member institution in the United Kingdom, has identified a potential solution.

Dr. Daragh Murray launched the university’s Digital Verification Unit (DVU) in 2016 to strengthen the use of emerging technologies in human rights investigations and prosecutions. “The proliferation of smartphones and increased internet connectivity mean that those affected by human rights violations – victims and witnesses - are able to share their stories and experiences in ways that were simply unimaginable before.”

Dr. Murray, who is also a senior lecturer at the university’s Human Rights Centre and the School of Law, noted that “access to this content provides a resource for human rights investigators, as it allows them, really for the first time, to undertake in-depth investigations remotely. The resulting insights and visual documentation can help to counter official narratives and provide a compelling evidence base for legal or advocacy purposes.”

Essex DVU, part of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC), has been at the forefront of this new field of open source intelligence. At the start of each academic year, students from across the university are trained on techniques to verify a range of content and respond rapidly to human rights crises. Many acquire skills they will go on to use in their professional lives after graduation.

“It is very rewarding work, I feel that we are contributing to real cases and investigations and I have definitely acquired new skills,” said Amira Hanafy Bayoumi, who just completed a Master of Laws (LLM) degree in International Human Rights Law.  Amnesty’s DVC allows students of the University of Essex to work on investigations alongside similar units at other universities across the world.

“Universities are particularly well-placed to conduct this work. We are in the privileged position of being able to draw on an engaged student body, as well as a research environment that allows these skills to flourish and develop,” said Dr. Murray. In November 2019, the DVC was named International Collaboration of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards for its investigation into the bombing of Raqqa, Syria.

Student members of Amnesty’s DVC, including those at the University of Essex, used innovative open source methods to identify videos and photos of Raqqa online and then geolocate destroyed buildings using Google Earth. GPS coordinates for each building were published online. Another group of volunteers then used satellite imagery to establish when the buildings had been destroyed.

Amnesty investigators on the ground used this information to identify survivors and witnesses and pieced together the true story of the destruction of Raqqa. Over 1,600 victims were credibly identified, and the report was subsequently presented via an online platform and at an interactive exhibition in London. Essex DVU also works with other partners, including non-governmental organizations and several UN human rights bodies.

Essex DVU has produced an Introductory Guide to Open Source Investigations and Dr. Murray along with Sam Dubberley from Amnesty International and Professor Alexa Koenig from the University of California, Berkeley, edited Digital Witness, the first textbook in this field, which was published in February 2020. Through its partnership with Amnesty International, Essex DVU has helped to build a worldwide network of skilled investigators on human rights, in line with the UNAI principle on commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech.