Adapting technological tools for human rights monitoring: lessons from Burundi

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A Burundian protester reacts as he is arrested by police officers during an anti-government demonstration in Bujumbura, Burundi, on May 20, 2015. EPA / DAI KUROKAWA


Evidence of human rights violations in social and mainstream media has become increasingly ubiquitous and can be used and retained for human rights investigations, such as those taking place in Syria. Anyone with a cell phone can document the abuses: the widespread distribution of photos and graphic videos during protests against police violence in Nigeria; videos of police and military abuse against protesters in Myanmar; countless images of the assault on the US Capitol.

Through effective collection, analysis and strategic use, such abuses can – and should – be reported to international human rights bodies. As an initiative in Burundi, hitherto kept confidential for security reasons, illustrates, technology can help the collection of evidence reach the threshold required by international human rights bodies.

In 2015, when Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi announced that he was running for an unconstitutional third presidential term, Burundians took to the streets. The Burundian government was responsible for a massive and widespread crackdown on protesters, including a quickly quelled coup attempt. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, disappearances, acts of torture, rapes and other forms of sexual violence were among the violations against all forms of opposition perceived or alleged. Human rights defenders have been hastily forced to put their lives behind them.

In this context of acute crisis, a number of initiatives aimed at documenting the sheer scale of human rights violations have emerged across the country, often with international support. Courageous advocates and many ordinary citizens have started to put their testimonies on paper or just take photos and videos, sometimes on social media and often at very high risk. The US-based Carter Center and the Center for Civil and Political Rights launched a “Technical Assistance Project” (TAP) initiative that reused a digital election monitoring tool to better document these abuses .

Courageous advocates and many ordinary citizens have started to put their testimonies on paper or just take photos and videos, sometimes on social media and often at very high risk.

Due to the very volatile situation in Burundi at the time, this initiative had to be confidential: the risks for the actors on the ground were significant. The tool allowed the large collection of direct testimonies in a systematic way. The cases documented through the initiative led, among other things, to a confidential report submitted to an ongoing preliminary investigation by the International Criminal Court which registered it in July 2016.

The report, which provided evidence of appalling violations, was also submitted simultaneously to the United Nations Committee against Torture before a rare and special consideration requested by the Committee. In addition, there was a joint NGO public report, which the Burundian government delegation said they “were not able to consult with sufficient anticipation” as justification for missing part two of the report. review – an unprecedented affront to this United Nations body.

Well-documented reports such as the one provided by TAP have helped in the international recognition of massive human rights violations in Burundi. The UN Human Rights Council created a commission of inquiry just one month after the Committee Against Torture’s special examination, through a resolution that cited Burundi’s lack of cooperation with the mechanisms of the UN. The Commission continues to operate to this day.

For its part, the International Criminal Court subsequently opened an in-depth investigation in October 2017, giving hope for the end of impunity in Burundi, despite the government’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

Fortunately, the human rights situation in Burundi has improved slightly (as illustrated by the recent release of human rights defender Germain Rukuki), due to a series of factors as well as pressure from international human rights bodies. However, a lot of work remains to be done: human rights activists continue to be judicially harassed, and the International Commission of Inquiry still does not have access to Burundi.

The tool used in this context (NEMO, formerly “ELMO”) combined the functionalities of cutting-edge crowdsourcing platforms such as Ushahidi or the new Uwazi, with functionalities adapted to meet the requirements of security and documentation of reports on human rights in a highly repressive environment. Several adaptations and considerations made NEMO a good choice, three of which we highlight:

First, flexible technological input. NEMO enabled data collection via mobile devices, desktops and even SMS. NEMO also did not need a constant connection to collect and transmit information. This meant that in areas with low bandwidth or no data connection, monitors could still collect material for reports on their devices to be transmitted later.

Second, real-time multilingual reports and analysis: NEMO’s models allowed users to submit data in their native Kirundi or French, which was then analyzed in the original language as well as by English speakers. Since the system could process submissions in multiple languages, team members had access to real-time analysis in their language of choice regarding categorical questions about the region or types of incidents.

And third, security and encryption: human rights monitors put their lives at risk to defend the rights and freedoms of others. Designing a platform that gave them the best protection while using cost-effective open source technology was a necessity. We worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology Research Institute who tested and reviewed the penetration code to ensure that NEMO had strong anti-piracy measures. Because open source technologies are often built with components of varying quality, we wanted to assure our users that they were using communication technologies built to the highest possible security standards.

Some of the challenges we encountered included maintaining the anonymity and privacy of users in the field; learn to use the tool; acquire the skills necessary to document human rights violations; and ensure the safety of online and offline monitors. Not all of the monitors were able to stay with the project due to inevitable challenges.

Through our experience, we have learned to design a mission to take into account multiple data entries, since people collect this data in many ways (including on paper); design it for multiple languages ​​(or even a more familiar language that may be easy for the general public to use) and design it from the start with high security standards and training, which takes time. The more complicated a technological system, the greater the risk of security failure. Contexts may require certain parameters: transmission of encoded information via SMS, as implemented in a version of NEMO after Burundi, was more optimal for network capacity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it also meant that fewer narrative reports were possible; it also required additional security training in the event of interception of coded text messages, but the risks were lower. Designing and implementing technologies from a human rights perspective is an ever-evolving field, so we look forward to seeing how other human rights defenders and supporters continue to advance their reporting capabilities. in the years to come.


The authors would like to thank Gabrielle Bardall, The Carter Center, and Friedhelm Weinburg for their comments on this article.

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