Elaboration of a standardized documentation scheme for the use of remote sensing data in international criminal and human rights investigations

Freitag (22. September 2023), 09:00–10:30
SH 1.104
Raphaela Edler (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Exploring the documentation of remote sensing data for human rights investigations in the ongoing Syrian war, by using a novel standardised documentation scheme.
digital evidence, remote sensing, human rights investigation


To understand and document human right violations, sufficient data are needed. However, accessing areas of conflict to gain information is often prohibitively. Open-source information, defined by its open access possibilities through public websites, internet databases, and social media platforms may help address this lack of information. Open-source information such as remote sensing data, but also user-generated content such as videos, images, and social media posts offer a wide range of information. The quantity of information available may significantly compliment traditional methods in human rights investigations, which so far rely on a limited number of witnesses. However, such data and techniques also come with unique challenges, including the potential of data manipulation and disinformation as well as difficulties in handling, filtering, and analysing large quantities of information and hence may contribute to over-documentation of incidents. Additionally, critical data studies research (Boyd and Crawford 2012) has shown that data are, in every instance, socio-technically constructed in their specific contexts. Therefore, a critical use of remote sensing data in the field of human rights research must also address this socio-technical positionality.

Documenting human rights violations to assign accountability is a concept linked to judicial work. Several university research groups and NGOs are investigating the legal perspective of open-source information and presently offer guidelines on how to use open-source information to document and assess human rights violations. However, in these guidelines and protocols there is a current focus on user-generated content, whereas remote sensing information is underutilised. Existing researching using remote sensing data to document human rights violations is limited in scope and depth, and suffers from a disconnect with juridical methodology and construction of legal evidence. Kelly and Kelly (2014) assert that remote sensing analyses related to crimes are often lacking validation, which may hinder their legal admissibility as evidence for international courts. The availability of remote data without “on-the-ground” collection may constitute a lack of local knowledge and therefore a narrow subjectivity in the hypothesis building and testing of the researcher.

To address the above-identified gaps, we propose a transparent documentation process scheme for the use of remote sensing data in human rights investigations. Therfore the ongoing Syrian war functions as a case study.

Boyd, Danah and Kate Crawford. 2012. “Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon.” In Information, Communication & Society 15 (5): 662–679. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878.

Kelly, Alice B. and Nina Maggi Kelly. 2014. “Validating the Remotely Sensed Geography of Crime: A Review of Emerging Issues.” In 2072-4292 6 (12): 12723–12751. DOI: 10.3390/rs61212723.