A few minutes into his opening statement in the case against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo before the International Criminal Court in 2009, the prosecutor stopped speaking. He pointed to a screen with video footage that slowly lingers over a group of child soldiers. To make his case, he simply punctuated the visual images with a short repeated question: “This one?, This one?, This one?”
To convict Lubanga of war crimes, the Office of the Prosecutor needed to prove that children under the age of 15 were being conscripted and enlisted. When Lubanga was convicted in 2012, the prosecutor commented that “but for the sounds and images” presented in this case, the court could not have brought its charges successfully.
At my organization WITNESS, we believe that visual imagery has a unique, visceral power to unearth the truth and aid justice. In almost 25 years of supporting activists and human-rights defenders in the use of video to secure peace and justice, we have seen proof of visual imagery’s superpowers. Video can make it impossible to deny a survivor’s story, can convince a judge, can persuade a decision-maker, or can propel lawmakers to enact laws to protect victims of abuse. Most important, it can be the thing that turns a personal or a community’s story of abuse into a powerful tool for justice.
It took the proverbial village of NGOs, activists, prosecutors and witnesses to convict Lubanga. Bukeni Waruzi, a Congolese human-rights activist (who is now a WITNESS staff member), went to great lengths to borrow a film camera from a local wedding photographer, disguise himself as a journalist, and film visual evidence of war crimes like these being committed by Lubanga, only to spend years of persistent advocacy to ensure that his videos would be used to secure justice for child soldiers.
Today, technology has put the power of human-rights documentation in the hands of millions if not billions of potential Bukenis. From citizens in Syria who become first-hand documenters of atrocities like cylinder bombs in Daraya, to documentary filmmakers in the Ukraine who are using their cameras to expose the truths of a conflict.
Yet the swell in documentation of human-rights abuses has not translated in an equal measure of justice.
At WITNESS, we think a lot about the enormous promise that visual imagery holds to catalyze peace and justice and how to best capitalize on the opportunity of our generation. Technology has made it possible to capture, expose, document, and share visual information of injustice in unprecedented ways. To smooth the way to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal #16 — Peace and Justice — there are challenges that need to be addressed:
Our criminal-justice systems are not equipped to take advantage of this momentum in creation of media and cannot effectively integrate it.
The millions of citizen witnesses who are often the first to expose abuse, operate at extraordinary risks.
More often than not, mobile-phone documentation gets lost, is not trusted, or lacks important data to give it the evidentiary boost to make it count to deliver justice or to function as evidence in court.
There are solutions to these challenges and when applied they can go a long way to helping achieve SDG#16, including:
Addressing the skills-and-knowledge gap that this new generation of human-rights monitors and documenters face. They need access to tips and best practices, including, for example, simple guidance on how to preserve their mobile video and how to use video as evidence.
The criminal-justice system needs to understand how to evaluate and integrate enormous doses of visual data into the justice system.
There are technology solutions, like the CameraV app, that can fortify the trustworthiness of citizen media and help preserve important visual data, that should be standard functionalities that are “by design” embedded in every camera phone or media-sharing platform.