Documenting injustice, one photo at a time
17 July 2023

Since its creation more than 20 years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has overseen 31 cases involving genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. However, many audio files, photos and videos depicting mass killings and other atrocities are not admissible to court because they cannot be verified. More often than not, those in war-torn countries and places with conflicts need help in seeking justice. In 2023, this dilemma is transpiring in real time as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.

Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, set out to provide a solution to this problem by devising a way to securely and verifiably document and report human rights atrocities. He partnered with Nigel Roberts, vice president of Global Associations, and Ian McDougall, executive vice president and general counsel, of LexisNexis – a subsidiary of RELX – to create eyeWitness to Atrocities. With leadership from Wendy Betts, director of the programme, volunteers from LexisNexis’ technology teams pored over both legal and technical data.

In 2015, that analysis came to fruition with the release of the eyeWitness app. The innovative app allows human rights defenders on the ground to capture photos and videos that are embedded with metadata at the moment the footage is captured. This information can verify where and when the footage was taken and whether or not it was altered.

Documenters can then send these files to the eyeWitness server, where the app creates a record of who has had access to the information captured or a trusted chain of custody. The technology used to create the secure repository for this data is the same used to safeguard sensitive and confidential material for LexisNexis clients. This level of security is key to allowing photos and videos to be used as evidence in court.

Pro bono lawyers review all information received by the app, tagging, cataloguing and processing these files to meet the requirements of ICC investigators. Finally, eyeWitness identifies the international, regional and/or national bodies best placed to act on the evidence, ensuring it can be used to secure justice.

‘Preserving the metadata of photos and videos to allow footage taken by brave witnesses to be used to obtain justice is an out-of-the-box way of advancing the rule of law,’ according to McDougall. ‘Of particular note is the feature that wipes the app from the phone so the witness is not the next victim. LexisNexis works in creative ways every day to advance the rule of law around the world.’

Since its launch in 2015, app has received over 60,000 uploads of photos or video footage. The international community has taken note: in December 2016, eyeWitness won the Geneva Centre for Security Policy Prize for Innovation in Global Security, which recognises individuals or organisations that have developed creative solutions to international security challenges.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the app has been used extensively to document potential war crimes. eyeWitness lost no time in rolling out a Ukrainian-language version of the app with funds provided by the LexisNexis Rule of Law Foundation and releasing resources in Ukrainian and Russian. With encouragement from the Ukrainian government, civilians, civil society organisations, law firms and commercial companies have uploaded to the app over 30,000 photos and videos of suspected atrocities. As a result of the influx, eyeWitness received more footage in 2022 alone than in previous years combined. The organisation successfully delivered 17 dossiers with this information to relevant accountability mechanisms, including the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.

As long as crimes against humanity are perpetrated in any corner for the world, eyeWitness will continue to work toward securing justice for victims of heinous crimes. As American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

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Key numbers
photos or videos uploaded to the app since 2015