Advocacy update

New Guide Explores Issues around Open Source Evidence in Court

May 20, 2024
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In early May, the Open Society Justice Initiative presented a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee against Russia, for its role in a 2019 attack on a civilian hospital in Syria. The complaint was supported by a significant volume of video and audio material gathered by our partners both directly, and indirectly from online sources. Much of the evidence presented is what is known as digital open source material—that is, digital information that is publicly accessible on the internet.

But what is the status of this material as evidence in judicial proceedings, and how should judges and fact-finders approach its analysis?

Beyond this Syrian complaint, the surge in the availability of open-source information has become increasingly vital in the pursuit of accountability and justice, particularly in the realms of human rights, humanitarian law, and international criminal law.

Recognizing the importance of these questions, a collective of lawyers, legal scholars, human rights advocates, and experts in open source investigation have come together to produce a groundbreaking resource: Evaluating Digital Open Source Imagery: A Guide for Judges and Fact-Finders.

The guide has been written by contributors from the Open Society Justice Initiative and other leading institutions including Queen Mary University of London, University of California Berkeley, Mnemonic, Swansea University, WITNESS, University of Essex, University of Oxford, and the Hertie School Centre for Fundamental Rights.

It seeks to demystify the complex process of evaluating digital open-source imagery. At its core, the guide aims to equip judges, fact-finders, and decision-makers with the necessary tools to assess the credibility, reliability, and probative value of open source evidence effectively.

Designed as a comprehensive resource, the guide covers a range of key issues relevant to the evaluation of digital open-source information, including authenticity verification, metadata analysis, and source validation. By providing clear definitions, practical examples, and insightful guidance, the guide enables users to make informed assessments and decisions when confronted with open-source evidence.

"Digital open-source information has emerged as a powerful tool in the pursuit of accountability," said Dr. Daragh Murray, Queen Mary University. "However, its utilization presents unique challenges for legal professionals. This guide represents a milestone in addressing these challenges and empowering judges and fact-finders to navigate the complexities of open source evidence."

Hadi Al Khatib, of the group Mnemonic, which worked with the Justice Initiative on the Russia hospital attack complaint, said: “We hope that this guide will assist judicial bodies in understanding and evaluating digital open source evidence, crucial for advancing accountability and justice in our digital age."

The Guide has been published in five languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Ukrainian.

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