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.

Human Rights 2.0?

Firstly, check out Patrick Meier’s blog, iRevolution.

It’s rare that I unhesitatingly recommend a blog for its gripping content and this is one. Patrick’s extremely prolific and this is not the only place he blogs which makes it hard to keep up with his writing, but his significant experience and lateral thinking are evident in any of the posts.

Patrick’s post on Human Rights 2.0 is just one of the posts that caught my eye because Patrick deals with in theory what I am involved in practice – securing fundamental rights of peoples and communities at risk through technology. Patrick showcases an Amnesty International project – Eyes on Darfur – that I first saw at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium last year.

Eyes on Darfur

Patrick’s post with information on AI’s future plans and also the demonstrable difference Eyes on Darfur has already made in Sudan are hugely compelling examples of how technology can meaningfully help strengthen human security.

Human Rights 2.0

On the other hand, I’m a bit sceptical about the term “Human Rights 2.0”. It suggests to me some significant and irreversible progress made globally in human rights protection, when the more egregious cases of HR violations – beginning with the US and extending to governments such as we find in Sri Lanka today – take place with near total impunity and under the radar of the global media. This is not to undermine the importance of initiatives such as Eyes on Darfur, but the Human Rights 2.0 monicker suggests an evolution that frankly is a disconnect from the realities on the ground in many countries around the world. Though technologies such as Web 2.0 can positively transform the manner in which human rights advocacy and monitoring is thought of and actually takes place (InfoShare’s own system is one example) all the technology really does is to strengthen a wider and deeper awareness and appreciation of civil liberties often brushed aside for military and political expediency. In this sense, technology can be a vital witness to the visceral reality of human rights violations (though as I have written before, it may not always be impartial).

So whether it be in helping record incidents or locating them on a map, new technologies give activists new ways to hold those who violate human rights accountable for their actions. However, it is vital to recognise that these new technologies are also available to repressive governments, dictators and paramilitary groups. For example, the purveyors of commercial satellite imagery that AI uses do not (and cannot) necessarily discern between violators and protectors.

Finally, suggesting that we all “upgrade to Human Rights 2.0” is to me confusing, since Human Rights cannot be measured or thought of in the same way as web and Internet technologies. Perhaps the term requires a more precise definition that I encourage Patrick to provide. What would Human Rights 1.0 for example be in contradistinction to Human Rights 2.0? And what are the markers that one has upgraded to Human Rights 2.0? And say for example that initiatives similar to Eyes on Darfur are able to prevent wide-scale massacres, but are powerless to prevent the arbitrary violence against citizens by repressive governments or the continued violation of language rights (with significant implications on the larger human rights context). Would that still be Human Rights 2.0?

None of the presentations I make to human rights and media freedom activists use terms like Web 2.0, UNICODE, AES encryption, over the wire and on disk security, asynchronous access, RSS or GIS – features of human rights advocacy and monitoring solutions I’ve helped develop. For me, buzzwords du jour are less important than the meaningful empowerment of those whose lives are on the line when it comes to HR protection and who don’t have time to become experts in ICT. That’s our job. We all get a high when we see HR activists use our technology – they simply trust the system to deliver results they could not have otherwise achieved, in a manner and media of their own choosing and design. The underlying technology is, for them, invisible and unimportant.

What matters is not Human Rights 2.0, but about being as much of a pain in the arse as possible to those who violate human rights, by recording for posterity and with as much detail as possible, crimes against humanity and human decency.