22 February 2017

Experts develop new tool for recording wartime rights abuses

Reporting human rights violations in war zones has been made easier thanks to a new tool developed through a knowledge transfer partnership at the University of Essex.

The online tool, which enables civilian-led monitoring of crimes that often go undocumented like torture, killings and sexual violence, has been developed by researchers from Essex’s Language and Computation Group in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering.

Picture of old man in an Iraqi street

The impact of prolonged armed conflict on Iraqi citizens has been difficult to monitor

It is the product of a 36-month knowledge transfer partnership between Essex, Minority Rights Group International and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. The Essex work was led by Professors Udo Kruschwitz and Massimo Poesio.

The online reporting tool uses crowd-sourcing technology, including live mapping and social media data mining, to provide a secure and anonymous platform enabling real-time reporting of violations in a format compatible with international legal standards. It supports reporting in English as well as Arabic.

It is just one of several initiatives Essex is leading on the use of technology to promote and protect human rights: in 2016 Essex’s Human Rights Centre launched a major new study investigating the big data implications for human rights; and students are working with Amnesty International on a global verification project which will see them train human rights actors to use social media for monitoring abuses.

Speaking about the Minority Rights Group project Professor Poesio said: “We had to face a number of challenges, first among which was that although a number of platforms for reporting abuse already exist, nobody has ever tried to mine social media to identify additional reports of human right abuse, so we had to create an entirely new categorisation system, datasets, and mining tools.”

The team behind the tool worked with civil society in Iraq where continued armed conflict and a protracted humanitarian crisis make reporting via traditional fact-finding missions difficult.

Mark Lattimer, Executive Director at Minority Rights Group said: “Civilians in Mosul, Baghdad and Anbar are on the frontlines of what is happening in Iraq. Technological advances now mean that they can report violations in a way that is secure and, crucially, can be verified. The Ceasefire reporting tool can help us to get a better picture of violations, including of women’s rights that have been under-reported.”

Data submitted through the tool are used to create a more accurate and up-to-date picture of the situation in Iraq, motivate a more effective national and international response, and strengthen calls for accountability.

In the longer term, Minority Rights Group and Ceasefire hope the civilian-led monitoring model could be applied outside Iraq to produce much-needed data about violations in other armed conflicts.

The knowledge transfer partnership has been funded by Innovate UK, the European Union, the Canadian Government, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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