Using Technology to End Impunity for Mass Atrocities, Including Rape

This blog is a part of International Justice Monitor’s technology for truth series, which focuses on the use of technology for evidence and features views from key proponents in the field.

On March 7, 2014, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted Germain Katanga of aiding a 2003 attack on civilians in Bogoro, a village in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Grave human rights violations were perpetrated in Bogoro, including the murder of 200 civilians in a matter of hours and the rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls. Katanga was found guilty as an accessory to one crime against humanity and four war crimes. The charges also included rape and sexual slavery, representing the first time that the ICC charged a defendant with sexual violence crimes, a very significant step forward in the fight against such violations.

However, in a devastating blow to survivors, Katanga was acquitted of mass rape and sexual enslavement charges mainly because the judges found no evidence that these acts were “committed on a wide scale.” Given a scarcity of forensic medical evidence to substantiate witness accounts, coupled with the theory that sexual and gender-based violence crimes have a high evidentiary standard, it is no wonder that the ICC has yet to find a defendant guilty of sexual violence crimes.

In light of such injustices, we at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have recognized the growing need and use of technology to capture forensic medical evidence. We are currently developing MediCapt, a mobile application that health care workers can use to digitize standard medical information while conducting a medical exam on a sexual violence survivor. Health care workers can also take forensic photographs and create a record of sexual violence that can be uploaded to secure data cloud storage and preserved for future use. MediCapt also has a corresponding web application that affords law enforcement, lawyers, and judges access to the records. Significantly, MediCapt is being developed so that chain of custody is preserved and the highest security is maintained so that these records can one day be used in a court of law.

While the main purpose of MediCapt is to aid sexual violence prosecutions at the national level, our technology also captures geospatial metadata, allowing for real-time tracking and mapping of sexual violence cases that can expose patterns and trends and ultimately aid in mass crimes investigations. In addition, by capturing significant perpetrator information – such as uniforms worn, weapons used, and victim-specific information, including ethnicity and injuries sustained – information of sexual violence crimes in the aggregate has the potential to supplement the much needed evidentiary gaps experienced in cases like that of Katanga.

PHR is not the only organization creating such “technology for truth.” As Alison Cole states in her opening blog post, the movement afoot, which is largely driven by citizen-led processes to help gather evidence by the “citizen investigator,” is becoming ever-important especially with respect to the use of social media in court. While this evidence is largely attributed to citizens being at the right place at the right time, technology is increasingly recognized as a way for first responders to human rights violations to capture evidence. This is where MediCapt and other technologies, such as eyeWitness, come into play.

Collecting digital evidence is not without its challenges. It can be quite difficult to collect such evidence while a mass atrocity is being carried out, especially in remote areas without reliable internet connectivity. Importantly, MediCapt can be used offline, allowing clinicians to create survivor medical records in remote areas and sync the data at a later time in an area with Wi-Fi connection. In addition to technological hurdles, there are the standard challenges inherent in collecting evidence, digital or physical, from mass sexual and gender-based violence crimes. Often times, victims do not come forward for fear of stigma, ostracism from families and communities, and shame. Collecting forensic evidence during crimes of mass rape is ever more difficult because of the insecurity created by conflict, impeding survivors’ ability to access medical care and file claims.

There are procedural issues to consider in the collection of digital evidence as well. Courts must keep pace with technology and create rules that govern admissibility of digital evidence. Moreover, organizations creating such tools need guidance to ensure that the evidence generated by these technologies meets the necessary criteria for legal processes.

There also are substantive legal challenges of using digital evidence obtained during a mass atrocity. In developing MediCapt, for instance, a major issue we face is how best to capture informed consent from the sexual violence survivor. While it is easy for the health care professional to obtain informed consent at the time of medical examination for a local legal process, it is unclear how far this informed consent extends. If it must be obtained again to use the sexual violence record at the international level, this may not be possible if the survivor has moved or cannot otherwise be located. Additionally, witness protection is a major issue for the ICC. As can be seen with the Katanga case, witness testimony is heavily relied upon, and witnesses come forward at great risk to themselves and their families. With the advent of technologies such as MediCapt, digital evidence – along with metadata to prove authenticity and credibility – will hopefully be able to stand alone, eliminating the need for witness testimony for corroboration. However, until then, a robust witness protection program is needed to protect these witnesses and provide them with the support to come forward.

Though charging Katanga with both war crimes and crimes against humanity for rape and sexual slavery was a step forward, the sexual violence survivors of the Bogoro massacre did not see justice. Despite the great risk of stigma and ostracism, these survivors came forward to tell their stories of horror, shame, and humiliation at the hands of their perpetrators. In the future, hopefully technology, including MediCapt, will help bolster these survivors’ claims and provide the quantity and quality of evidence needed to end impunity. Until then, justice may remain elusive for certain survivors of sexual violence.

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi, JD is Physician for Human Right’s MediCapt Project Manager and Senior Program Officer of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. 

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately.
See our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.