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Times Higher Award for international collaboration of the year

  • Date

    Fri 29 Nov 19

Logo for THE Awards 2019 Winner International Collaboration of the Year

A partnership between Amnesty International, not-for-profit company Airwars and six universities from around the world, including Essex, was named International Collaboration of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards - the Oscars of higher education.

The universities have worked with Amnesty International to develop the Digital Verification Corps, a new approach to investigating human rights violations in armed conflict. 

The award judges said they were “incredibly impressed with the nature of the partnership, how it led to an impressive network of student investigators, and how it has delivered and continues to deliver data-driven evidence that can be used to prosecute war crimes and support society-building and social justice”.

Essex was also shortlisted in the THE Awards for Outstanding Library Team and Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences for a partnership between Professor Lorna Woods and the Carnegie UK Trust to develop a legal framework to protect internet users.

Tracking civilian deaths in Raqqa

Essex was recognised 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.

Trained groups of students used innovative open source methods to identify videos and photos of the Syrian city of Raqqa online and then to geolocate destroyed buildings using Google Earth. GPS coordinates were published online so that a further group of crowdsourced volunteers could use free satellite imagery to pinpoint when those buildings had been destroyed.

Amnesty investigators on the ground used this information to identify survivors and witnesses and to piece together the true story of the destruction of Raqqa.

The project led to the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in modern conflict. More than 1,600 victims were credibly identified – about 10 times more than the number that the US-led coalition had accepted responsibility for. The findings were presented on an online platform and at an exhibition in London.

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.”

Developing the digital skills to track human rights 

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

The universities said collaborative software and meetings at global summits were key to their working together successfully.

Digital Verification Unit 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.

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: “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”.

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.”

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.