THE Awards 2019: global human rights collaboration recognised with nomination

  • Date

    Thu 5 Sep 19

A global research partnership, which uses technology to deliver ground-breaking human rights investigations, has been recognised with a nomination at the prestigious Times Higher Education Awards.

The Essex Digital Verification Unit (DVU), based at our Human Rights Centre Clinic, gives students the opportunity to learn a range of techniques to verify open-source information and collect evidence that can be used to hold governments and companies to account.

Essex DVU has been shortlisted in the International Collaboration of the Year category, for its role as a founding partner in Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, working alongside similar teams at five global universities to deliver a report that details the impact of the US-led Coalition’s campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State.

The six members of the Amnesty Digital Verification Corps used innovative open source methods to identify videos and photos of Raqqa online and then to geolocate destroyed buildings, using Google Earth. GPS coordinates were published online so that a further group of crowd-sourced volunteers could use free satellite imagery to find when those buildings had been destroyed. Amnesty investigators on the ground then used this information to identify survivors and witnesses, and piece together the true story of the destruction of Raqqa.

Dr Daragh Murraywho heads up the Essex DVU, said: “Students in our Digital Verification Unit are leading the way in the development of open source investigation techniques. Our collaboration with Amnesty, and partners in Berkeley, Pretoria, Toronto, Cambridge and Hong Kong are central to our work. This collaboration not only makes our work unique, it makes it possible.”

Dr Patricia Palacios Zuloaga, Director of our Human Rights Centre Clinic, said: “We are thrilled that the DVU has been shortlisted for such a prestigious prize. It’s testament to the dedication of our students and their supervisor, Dr Daragh Murray, who have worked tirelessly to bring accountability to some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. It’s also validates our position that clinical education is a great way for students to learn about the law while making a huge impact in the world”. 

The collaboration between the six universities vastly increased the resources available to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Raqqa.

Sam Dubberley, Amnesty Digital Verification Corps Manager, said: “Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps is a ground-breaking endeavour. Working with student partners from all over the world offers fresh insights into our own processes, and allows us to investigate human rights abuses in a way that has never before been possible.”

The Raqqa report was presented via an online platform and at an exhibition in London. The report contrasts the Coalition’s previous claim of a “precise air campaign”, that would minimise civilian casualties, with verified reports of mass destruction and more than 1600 civilian casualties, more than ten times the number the Coalition has accepted responsibility for.

Coalition air strikes were disproportionate and indiscriminate, Amnesty alleges – a characterisation consistent with a charge of war crimes.

Tirana Hassan, Director, Crisis Response Team, Amnesty International, said: “The Raqqa investigation really demonstrated the power of open source investigation and the strength of our collaboration with Essex and other universities. It allowed us to conduct the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in modern conflict, and to use this information to elevate the voices of victims and their families and to help hold the perpetrators of human rights violations to account.”

Since the completion of the Raqqa report, Essex DVU has also contributed to a report on the “extreme” environmental damage caused by a Peruvian mine, resulting in serious health impacts.

The THE Award winners will be announced on 28 November, at a ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.