Citizens Net: Crowd-sourcing human rights violations?

The Sunday Leader recently reported on a new, unique initiative by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) in Sri Lanka to gather information on human rights violations. Called Citizens Net, the news report notes that it is open to logging “issues regarding gender-based violence, the rights of children, the elderly and the disabled.”

However, there is no mention of this on the site itself, which already displays well over 1,500 human rights violations at the time of writing.

Conceptually, this is an unprecedented site in Sri Lanka, opening up a reporting platform for citizens to log their complaints over human rights violations. Unsurprisingly, this is bound to be a controversial idea and its execution rife with questions over how CHA will handle and verify incoming reports. Already, those like Bonaparte on the Sunday Leader site raise the obvious, knee-jerk concerns by those partial to government that a site such as this will be used for war crimes investigations. It is perhaps why the news report suggests a very specific set of human rights violations that will be logged.

Confusingly then, and invariably adding to the chorus line of pro-government supporters is data already in the system relating to, for example, death by air strikes as shown in the map below.

Likewise, the site already contains records on a whole range of human rights violations, including death in detention or police custody, disappearances, torture, killings in indiscriminate attacks such as bombings and deliberate killings of specific individuals. Sri Lanka is, sadly, no stranger to significant violations in all of these categories, but it is unclear from where the site gets its information, and the process of verification employed. All of these categories are politically explosive. Potentially more explosive, no pun intended, are records displayed on the website related to the last stages of the war.

For example, a search for all records related to the Killinochchi District pertaining to air strikes, direct actions which violations the right to life, IED explosions and unexplained killings from 1 January 2009 to 1 June 2009 results in 27 victims. It is not clear who these victims are, how they were logged, and given that none of them are verified, what steps CHA can and will take in the future to ascertain the veracity of this information in a political context almost completely closed to such investigations. This is further exemplified in the topline charts on the home page.

What do these figures mean? How does one interpret the graph on the right, and what is the scale used? It is very difficult to drill down to specifics on the site, and given that most records in the system are unverified, it is not very clear how useful these visualisations are at present.

Tellingly, there is no privacy statement anywhere on the site, and given that logging an entry requires a citizen to put down her / his name, email address and contact number, it is unclear as to what extent CHA will treat this information as confidential, and whether for example it will turn over submission information upon a court order, or as often the case in Sri Lanka, the diktat of the Ministry of Defence. This is an inherent problem of the model of data collection undergirding this site. While the platform itself is well designed, I have significant concerns about using what Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier calls an unbounded crowdsourcing model to ascertain human rights violations, without any publicly available model of verification or data privacy to boot. If the idea of the site was to create and present a publicly accessible score card of human rights in post-war Sri Lanka, populated by its citizenry and verified by CHA, the underlying model has to be revised and more openly published.

The technology as it stands is fine for this purpose, but the lack of clarity over what this site actually does and stands for risks, from the get go, undermining the public confidence it needs to be genuinely useful in human rights advocacy and activism.

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