Yesterday Channel 4 in the UK aired the above video, allegedly recorded on a mobile phone and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists, apparently of Sinhalese soldiers massacring Tamil noncombatants earlier this year. The Sri Lankan government (naturally) argues it is a fabrication. Human Rights Watch’s James Ross says “there is no way to tell if the footage is genuine,” but argues that the release of the film underscores the need for an “objective” inquiry into atrocities – by both sides – during the conflict.
I agree with Human Rights Watch in general – that whatever the validity of the film, truth-letting is politically necessary in order to move the country beyond two and half decades of armed struggle.
But I’m not so satisfied with Ross’s claim that we can’t know if the film itself is valid, since ultimately footage like this will increasingly matter, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, as post-conflict justice is pursued through courts.
Anyway, are there really no standards of evidence emerging for user-generated video such as this? Channel 4 at the UK has described the measures it took to authenticate the film before airing it, including qualitative comparisons to similar footage from the Bosnian war. It’s interesting to think about what kind of authentication could hold up in a hypothetical war crimes court.
Would it not be useful to know more, for example, about how the UK acquired the video? How it made its way from the soldier who shot it to the human rights activist who passed it along to the journalist? One can imagine a number of legitimate scenarios; one can imagine others. Answers to these questions can be found, and have a bearing on the credibility of the film. Retracing that chain to the original cell phone could lead to additional facts of the case, a skill already in use by cyber forensic researchers in domestic contexts. And relevant evidentiary standards must be under development by US law enforcement agencies, cell phone video is increasingly being used to investigate criminals and agents of the state alike.
Not being a cyber forensics expert, I don’t claim to know what these standards are or offer suggestions as to how to view this particular video artifact. But such solutions should be devised, as claiming “one can never know for certain” will ultimately be self-defeating for the human rights community, feeding into the denials of abusive governments. The “Neda effect” – the use of cell-phone video to capture and make visible acts of brutality – has the potential to shift the balance of power between governments and citizens, but also the potential for abuse and misdirection. Human rights organizations should be taking the lead in figuring out how institutions of international justice can leverage such technology while mitigating its side-effects, rather than shrugging it off altogether.