People today document human rights incidents faster than they can be processed or analysed. Documentation includes both official and unofficial information, ranging from reports and inquiries to news articles, press releases, statements, and transcripts. These can all serve as a record of a human rights violation.
There is simply too much content to synthesize quickly enough for use in judicial or policy work. However, as this content is valuable for justice and accountability, we need to find ways to convert it into usable information. New technology has a crucial role to play in this process, allowing us to analyse, view, and use information. This is particularly interesting in conflict contexts.
Active armed conflicts and mass human rights violations persist globally. Many countries are still reeling from conflicts that have ceased, or past periods of mass human rights violations. The violations are often so numerous and serious that the regular justice system is unable to respond adequately. As a result, countries often establish a variety of specialised judicial and non-judicial measures to support their transition towards sustainable peace – this is known as transitional justice. The most common approaches include the creation of specialised criminal justice mechanisms, truth seeking initiatives, reparations programs and institutional reform. Transitional justice initiatives such as these aim to recognise the dignity of individuals, provide redress for violations, prevent recurrence and contribute towards national reconciliation.
One useful example comes from the civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in 2009. Following years of conflict, and much disagreement about how the end of the war unfolded, in September 2015, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Sri Lankan government agreed to establish a range of transitional justice mechanisms. These included an office on missing persons, a reparations commission, a truth commission, and a judicial mechanism.
The proposed transitional justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka, like similar ones in other contexts, need reliable data. Existing documentation on human rights violations is a vital data source. At the outset, documentation enables transitional justice mechanisms to design data-driven policies, research plans and investigation strategies. In addition, existing documentation significantly augments the information that a transitional justice mechanism can collect itself, such as through its own statement taking or investigations during its period of operation.
Transitional justice mechanisms like truth commissions are resource intensive and are often time-bound, temporary institutions. They typically have one to two years to operate. New technologies offer new ways to enable the vast, wide variety of documentation that exists to be used as a platform for data driven transitional justice work.
The first step is gathering the relevant source documents. At the moment, whether led by civil society or by transitional justice mechanisms themselves, this process is usually done manually. In the case of Sri Lanka, researchers in the Conflict Mapping and Archive Project have manually searched for and read close to 6,000 documents online and in archives. Researchers have scoured these documents for relevant information on possible human rights violations. This process involved hours of work by a number of committed students as well as around a dozen pro bono lawyers over the course of 18 months.
Automated systems that capture newly created or historical electronic content may be incredibly powerful in transitional justice work. These systems have existed for decades, but it is unclear if and how they have been used in transitional justice. Existing sophisticated content-gathering systems could largely replace manual searching and filtering, like that undertaken by the mapping project team, requiring significantly less effort and oversight. Automated systems have sometimes been used for larger projects that predominantly monitor contemporaneous news sources, but have been less frequently used for historic conflicts or for projects that incorporate a wider variety of sources.
Once researchers have gathered the appropriate documents and filtered them to include only those that are relevant, they still need analyze and extract pertinent information. Those working on the mapping project in Sri Lanka have done this manually, with researchers coding and entering the relevant information into a database to form over 4,000 incidents. This is because the benefits of technological development have inconsistently filtered into the human rights and, more specifically, transitional justice fields, so the majority of the work has been completed by hand.
Content analysis technology could improve the process of human interpretation, helping to automatically extract and code this information. One example is text annotators, such as the Stanford Core NLP tool, which could make the work of researchers much more efficient. However, we are still not at the stage where technologies such as these are being used routinely in transitional justice contexts, because they are difficult to employ and the margin of error is still too great to justify its use.
Finally, the information that has been selected and extracted needs to be understood, both in isolation and in comparison to other information. Truth seeking mechanisms are concerned with identifying trends and patterns, as well as root causes and antecedents. To facilitate this process, truth commissions and other transitional justice mechanisms generally use various databases as a major component of their information management system. The mapping project currently relies on a simple relational database, which can be modified in-house and can generate internal customisable reports. It is user-friendly and serves the project’s purposes well, because it can be shared easily and external users can navigate the reports without a sophisticated understanding of technology.
As valuable as databases are, however, they are not at the cutting edge of what is technologically possible today. Increasingly, human rights data are presented in a visual format. More often, non-government organisations are using interactive data visualisation techniques to facilitate ease of understanding and analysis for the user. People can better understand complex information if they can visualise it, allowing data to become more persuasive and memorable. Since researchers cannot accurately anticipate what each user’s interest will be in the dataset, interactivity gives users the ability to select relevant data for visualisation.
The Conflict Mapping and Archive Project recently finished a report based on all the information it has gathered and analysed. The next phase of its work will involve creating an interactive data visualisation tool. These resources will be crucial foundations for truth, reparations, and accountability work. The mapping project’s use of modest technology to process information overloads has led to an exploration of the exciting possibilities for comprehensive, efficient transitional justice work.
Featured Image Credit: “Grey click pen on black book” by Thomas Martinsen. CC BY 2.0 via Unsplash.