Commentary: Geospatial technology can improve human rights documentation

Author: Theresa Harris, OpenGlobalRights, Published on: 12 November 2018

Human rights practitioners have become increasingly savvy about the ways geospatial technologies can help document violations in conflict zones that are difficult to reach, show chronological changes in landscapes, and corroborate witness testimony... So far, only a small portion of this work has made its way into human rights litigation...Geospatial technologies and the tools to analyze remotely sensed data are developing so rapidly that by the time NGOs, lawyers, and judges learn one technology, another will supersede it. [But], [p]ractitioners using geospatial technologies should put the credibility and objectivity of the resulting analysis ahead of the specific technologies. [R]esearch conducted by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Project [on] 26 cases heard by international courts in which geospatial technologies were used [found that] [o]nly in cases where the court found the expert witness reliable and credible did they find the geospatial evidence to have probative value. By comparison, when a prosecutor attempted to admit a satellite image through the testimony of a victim witness, the court rejected the image. 

Human rights advocates seeking to incorporate remote sensing or other emerging technologies into their work should consult with an experienced, independent analyst who understands the frameworks specific to human rights litigation, and they should anticipate that this person may become an expert witness for the court, which will scrutinize their credentials...Similarly, courts with jurisdiction over human rights cases should develop principles for evaluating scientific evidence rather than focusing on specific technologies. Many national courts, including those of the United States, have developed rules and procedures for assessing the weight of scientific reports and data. It is time for international human rights courts to do this as well.

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