Using Open-Source Investigations to Protect and Preserve Cultural Heritage

For millennia, cultural heritage has been a target of war and conflict. Around AD 330, Emperor Constantine stole a bronze set of Greek horses to place in his new capital. Despite modern laws and international norms that protect cultural rights and prohibit their destruction and removal, cultural heritage continues to be a target in conflict. In 2015, ISIS destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, including the main Temple of Bel.

Cultural heritage includes both tangible heritage, such as paintings, sculptures, monuments, and archaeological sites; and intangible heritage, such as traditions, rituals, and performing arts. The right to culture is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Hague Convention. As the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights stated, “Cultural heritage is significant in the present, both as a message from the past and as a pathway to the future. Viewed from a human rights perspective, it is important not only in itself, but also in relation to its human dimension, in particular its significance for individuals and communities and their identity and development processes.”

In 2012, a jihadist group, Ansar Dine, targeted mosques, mausoleums and other cultural heritage sites in Mali in an attempt to rid the area of a Sufi-influenced form of Islam practiced in the region. The former UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights condemned this destruction, explaining the importance of cultural heritage: “‘The destruction of tombs of ancient Muslim saints in Timbuktu, a common heritage of humanity, is a loss for us all, but for the local population it also means the denial of their identity, their beliefs, their history and their dignity.’”

Holding the perpetrators of cultural heritage destruction accountable

The use of open source investigations to document and verify human rights abuses is becoming a common strategy in the human rights field. The process of identifying, collecting, and/or analyzing open source information as part of an investigative process includes both verifying and authenticating abuses, as well as documenting evidence of abuse. Open source investigations use news articles, blogs and websites, social media posts, satellite imagery, maps, statistical information, geolocation, reverse image searches, and other techniques to document and verify evidence of human rights abuses. For instance, in the case brought in the International Criminal Court against al Mahdi, a member of Ansar Dine, the prosecution provided evidence of videos of the destruction and a geolocation report. Al Mahdi ultimately pled guilty to the charges of “intentionally directing attacks against 10 buildings of a religious and historical character in Timbuktu, Mali.”

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Child trafficking in the fishing industry on Lake Volta

Challenging Heights is an anti-trafficking, anti-slavery, children’s rights NGO located in Winneba, Ghana, approximately an hour and a half outside of Accra, the capital. Inspired by the president and founder’s own experience being trafficked and enslaved as a child, the organization serves source communities, which are communities where children are trafficked from, in order to achieve its strategic goal of ending child trafficking in the fishing industry in Ghana in five years and ending child slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana in ten years.

 

During the Advocates Program, Challenging Heights provided an in-depth overview of every aspect of the organization. Each day, I was amazed by the breadth (and depth) of the organization’s programs. Not only does Challenging Heights rescue children from Lake Volta, rehabilitate them in a shelter, reintegrate them with their families and monitor them after reintegration, it also provides livelihood support to reintegrated children’s families as well as other vulnerable children’s families, conducts a youth empowerment program to tackle the root cause of poverty, campaigns against corporal punishment and child marriage, conducts alternative dispute resolution with slave masters to make sure children are given what they are owed for their labor, distributes 80,000 Tom’s shoes a year to schoolchildren, supports education with its newly independent Friends International Academy, conducts research projects on issues connected to its programs, and advocates for children’s rights locally, nationally and internationally.

 

The passion of the staff members of Challenging Heights layered each and every session throughout the Advocates Program. The communications officer, in the campaign against child marriage, hands out flyers that include her personal phone number so that people in danger of being married as a child or who know a child in danger of being married can call her for help. The rescue team risks their own lives to go out on the lake to rescue trafficked and enslaved children from slave masters. The shelter manager reminded us of the realities and challenges of shelter life, but when asked about her greatest success said, “Every single day when I see children laughing it’s a success. Even when they are crying, it’s a success because they can express their emotions”.

 

Despite the dedication and passion of Challenging Heights and its staff, slave masters and traffickers continue to traffic and enslave children without legal repercussion. In 2016, there were no convictions under Ghana’s anti-trafficking law, due to insufficient resources devoted to collecting evidence which hinders investigations according to the State Department.  Challenging Heights staff was certain Ghana would be moved to the Tier 3 watch list for trafficking in persons this year due to the government’s lack of action. However, the State Department granted Ghana a waiver because of a written plan that would have an impact if implemented. The Trafficking in Persons watch list levels are based on minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons the US State Department created.

 

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Award-winning Akayesu documentary to be screened at ASIL Annual Meeting

“The Uncondemned”, an award winning documentary about the first prosecution of rape as a war crime, will be screened at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law on Friday, April 14 at 7:30pm in the Regency Ballroom A of the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The world premiere of the film occurred at the United Nations in October.

Several of the lawyers whose work on the case is featured in the documentary will be in attendance for the screening, including Patricia Sellers, then Gender Officer for ICTR and ICTFY, Pierre-Richard Prosper, lead trial attorney in the Akayesu case, and Lisa R. Pruitt, then gender consultant to ICTR. Executive Director Michele Mitchell will also be present for Q&A after the film.

“The Uncondemned” tells the story of the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba commune. Akayesu was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 1997. While rape has been “on the books” as a war crime for nearly a century, it had never been prosecuted until this case. The film follows the lawyers and activists working to investigate, indict and convict Akayesu, not only on the basis of killings but also sexual assaults. The even more compelling story of the Rwandan witnesses is a focus of the film as well. Despite being initially skeptical of the United Nations and ICTR, these witnesses ended up coming forward to testify about the atrocities they saw and experienced during the genocide.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan observation that “The Uncondemned” is “the story of how history is made in small, at times uncertain, steps” is exemplified by the sexual assault charges eventually brought against Akayesu. Originally, the indictment included only charges based on killing, despite the documentation of sexual assaults by human rights NGOs. During the case, however, evidence of sexual assaults surfaced, leading to suspension of the trial until the matter could be investigated further. In the end, the indictment was amended and Akayesue was convicted not only of killings but also in connection to sexual assaults.

As a UC Davis law student interested in international human rights, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of this inspiring film at my law school a few months ago. As an aspiring lawyer, I found the documentary inspiring and uplifting. Documentaries about the Rwandan genocide tend to be uninspiring and focused on the lack of intervention of the international community. However, “The Uncondemned” tells a different story. It illustrates the extraordinary resilience of and solidarity among the Taba women who witnessed and experienced genocidal atrocities. A New York Times reviewer felt the same about the film, writing that the “most extraordinary are the interviews with the women…their integrity and tenacity, and their loyalty to one another are enough to bring you to tears.”

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