Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Exploring the impact of technology on effective human rights documentation and advocacy

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By Shruti Banerjee

Technological advancements have led to innovative methods of monitoring and documenting human rights violations as well as more efficient and effective human rights advocacy. We are now able to gather more accurate visual and numerical data on human rights abuses, conflict zones and potential threats to populations. Human rights advocates as well as historically marginalized groups can also raise greater awareness about human rights issues with the help of technology. If used effectively, new geospatial technologies and social media are tools that can advance human rights advocacy, ensure accountability and prevent abuses.


New technologies such as camera/video phones, recording devices, internet access and satellite imagery have changed the way human rights violations are reported and documented. Satellite images and other geospatial technologies provide us with pictures of conflict zones to track activities by potential threats. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Satellite Sentinal Project and Amnesty International utilize these technologies to monitor conflict zones and identify human rights violations. For example, AAAS has used this geospatial technology to track human rights violations in numerous conflict areas, including in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nigeria and other countries. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have used satellite images to track and document human rights abuses in the Central African Republic (burning of villages), Syria (chemical weapons) and North Korean (expansion of prison camps). This technology provides NGOs, governments and advocates with data that would be nearly impossible to compile without posing significant dangers to researchers, and it allows them to gauge human rights threats as they occur.

New technologies can also be used to push for legal accountability, though different types of technology must meet various standards before being admitted as evidence in international or domestic courts. In general, the requirements for evidence to be admitted are more defined for U.S. national courts than for international courts and tribunals. But all courts consider the authenticity, protection of privacy, chain of possession and reliability of the electronic evidence, according to a report by the Center for Research Libraries on human rights electronic evidence. Procedural rules at international courts and tribunals offer little guidance on what factors must be presented to authenticate new forms of electronic evidence. A report by University of Texas Austin Law School found that international courts generally apply standard evidentiary rules to electronic evidence and analyze their probative value and admissibility on a case by case basis. In the U.S., the rules for determining the admissibility of electronic evidence in courts is codified in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence. As outlined in these rules, the major factors considered when admitting electronic evidence include: relevance, authenticity, hearsay, whether the original or only copies exist, and whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs any prejudicial effects admitting it may have.

In international courts, video testimony, camera recordings and photos have been used during trials to successfully prosecute perpetrators of genocide. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda admitted as evidence thousands of hours of video testimony given by victims of the genocide. In the U.S., satellite and geospatial imagery has been admitted under Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 702, 703 and 1006. However, “the failure to understand how to appropriately and effectively authenticate electronic evidence has resulted in adverse rulings by federal courts,” according to a report by Center for Research Libraries on the admissibility of electronic evidence on U.S. courts. This has led to useful and eye-opening electronic evidence being deemed inadmissible in many federal cases.

Despite these advances in legal and political advocacy, it is important to recognize the limitations of geospatial technologies and satellite imagery, namely that an image cannot tell us about the socioeconomic or political factors that allowed for the abuses to happen in the first place. These images fail to clearly identify who the perpetrators of crimes are and who issues orders condoning abuses. While gaps in the narrative can often be filled in with testimonies by people on the ground (who sometimes use technology to report on the news and spread the word as violations are occurring), the biggest limitation to geospatial images is that they can only superficially document and inform us of the problem. Gathering this information does not mean governments or organizations will be forced to address abuses or threats. Thus, despite these technological achievements in monitoring human rights conditions, collecting data and increasing awareness is only the first step in effective advocacy to prevent and prosecute human rights violations.


The use of mobile devices, camera phones, mass text messaging apps and the internet has also drastically changed the platform for individual human rights advocacy in countries where this technology is becoming more prevalent. A popular form of activism in the U.S.—hashtag activism—has generated significant criticism for being a feel-good way to pretend you are politically active or aware by simply hashtagging a catchy statement, like #BringBackOurGirls or #KONY2012. While many of these movements, which garnered support from tens of thousands of online accounts, have led to very little concrete change in policy or law, we should not completely disregard social media’s potential for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of human rights advocacy.

Social media outlets, such as Twitter, have not only helped raise awareness about lesser known social issues, but it has also created a space for historically marginalized groups, such as feminists of color and African-American youth, to speak out. In an interview with The Atlantic, activist DeRay Mckesson pointed out that social media has finally given African-Americans the chance to tell their stories as they were happening. “The history of blackness is also a history of erasure,” Mckesson said. “Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven’t had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.”

Mckesson also pointed out that social media can help increase accountability of law enforcement officials by allowing photographs and videotapes of police abuse to be circulated quickly and widely. Organizations such as Witness.org train and support activists using video technology to expose and combat human rights abuses on the ground. While circulating videos of human rights abuses does not always lead to immediate justice, Mckesson said this type of accountability is “a different way of empowering people.” Even the largest critics of hashtag activism must admit that social media has created a space where marginalized voices can speak out and be heard while addressing controversial topics.

The internet and other advancements in technology have had certain positive effects, but we must recognize their limitations. The misuse of social media can lead to witch hunts, like the rampant media accusations of two innocent bystanders during the Boston Marathon Bombings. Social media also has limitations since many human rights violations are occurring in rural areas where internet and the usage of advanced technology are scarcer. In an interview with the Guardian, Editor and Author Ayesha Siddiqi commented on these limitations: “Work that’s meant to liberate all people cannot be presented in a language available to very few.”


While geospatial technologies and most hashtag movements have not always led to legal change, they have generated a significant amount of awareness. But, as mentioned earlier, awareness is only useful when it leads to activism and movement-building. An efficient and effective method used by many activists during the George Zimmerman trial, a case where a Florida man shot an unarmed African-American teenager, linked petitions to their tweets so these petitions would appear every time the hashtag #JusticeforTrayvon was searched. Linking these petitions to catchy hashtags helped advocates quickly gather thousands of signatures which they could use to demand action from their elected officials. Linking your tweets to government petitions or sites that raise funds for legal counsel for marginalized groups, or tagging your elected official generates real attention and action while avoiding clicktivism. By linking petitions and elected officials, you provide an avenue to participation for others and make it known to your elected official that they need to work to prevent human rights violation on our own soil and abroad.

Social media has also played a central role in building the civil rights movement of the 21st century, as documented in a recent profile by the New York Times. After the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed African-American, by police officer Darren Wilson, social media platforms were essential in organizing large protests, documenting police abuses and raising awareness. From Facebook invitations to maps tracking the location of protests, the livestreaming of demonstrations, Twitter hashtags and rides/accommodations organizing for activists, social media was the glue that brought thousands of people onto the streets to shut down traffic and cities across the country. It is also the force that has kept police abuse and racism at the forefront of national dialogue. Furthermore, #TeachingFerguson was used to help teachers from public schools, universities and law schools find ways to discuss the racial tensions and debates around Ferguson. These discussions are vital for expanding awareness and understanding for these fundamental issues affecting our society. The activism we saw during the Zimmerman trial and Ferguson incident were far from mere clicktivism since these forms of activism were used to garner real attention and action from elected officials, educators and individuals who would otherwise remain unexposed to the issues plaguing America.

Despite of the limitations posed by technology and the admissibility of electronic evidence in courts, its advancement has created innovative ways to progress human rights advocacy and push for greater accountability. Used properly, these advancements can continue to be effective tools in raising awareness by opening platform to marginalized communities, helping organize peaceful demonstrations and movements, speeding up petition signing and gathering evidence to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Jason Howie/Creative Commons

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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