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Online volunteers hunt for evidence of Russian war crimes

In Ukraine, civilian accounts of atrocities carried out by the Russian military continue to emerge. Online volunteers around the globe are now building dossiers of purported ‘war crimes’ for potential convictions once the gunfire ceases.

While our present obsession with tech and social media certainly has its drawbacks, it is conducive to creating a stronger feeling of democracy.

Wherever unlawful persecution or atrocities are taking place in plain sight, with platforms like Twitter and YouTube, you can bet the world will know all about it before long.

In the ongoing case of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s attempts to dilute the truth of Russia’s invasion – with propaganda of a ‘special military operation’ – have been grossly unsuccessful beyond the borders of his own nation, where social and traditional media is being censored.

We’ve ourselves witnessed smartphone footage of civilian areas being bombed, spontaneous violence, and innocent people dehumanised at the hands of the Russian military. Quite frankly, we’re witnessing war crimes taking place on our Twitter timelines.

There has been a marked increase in Russian artillery and missile strikes on populated urban areas over the past few weeks.  Recent videos showed the city of Kharkiv alite with shell fire as 21 people were killed in its central square.

While there is no immediate end in sight for the conflict, there are people committed to ensuring that these transgressions are documented in full, in the hope that prosecutions will eventually be made by the International Criminal Court.

Under this international body, indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians are deemed war crimes. Thus far, Ukraine’s civilian death toll stands at over 900 according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human rights organisations have already mobilised professional investigators to collect evidence and ratify first-hand accounts directly from Ukraine. Simultaneously, a growing volunteer front is carrying out its own intelligence gathering using public data and coordinated efforts on platforms like Discord.

This legion of activists is largely focused on geolocating where Russia’s strikes are targeted. Through tools like aerial satellite imagery and Google Maps, they’re able to highlight instances where ‘protected spaces’ like hospitals or schools have been damaged or destroyed. Findings are then ratified by certified fact checkers.

In one instance, a British intelligence company called ShadowBreak successfully intercepted analogue radio communications from Russian military. Through this channel, amateur translators said the commander had ordered a unit to cover a densely populated town with artillery fire.

‘Remove the first military property from the town, then cover the town with artillery fire,’ says a Russian soldier.

To you and I, this information looks like irrefutable evidence, right? In terms of what the International Criminal Court deems admissible, however, there is a lot more stipulation.

Only in the last couple of years has a standard rule-base been created to provide guidance on how to collect, archive, and present data from conflict zones. Dubbed the Berkley Protocol, this guide is a decent first step, but many aid groups are unwilling to fall under one blanket rule for handling information.

It’s a problem that reflects the sprawl of international organisations like the UN and ICC – as well as aid and human rights outfits – without one superseding authority and jurisdiction.

Even if all organisations were to unite under one framework, the Berkley Protocol doesn’t really address crowdsourcing either. This means we’ve got potentially more ports of evidence than ever before, with no real way of qualifying it.

If the conflict were to end tomorrow, whether any war crimes would receive punishment of any kind is anyone’s guess.


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