How Contestations over New Geospatial Technologies are Shaping International Justice​​

From 2004 to 2012 in Mexico and Nigeria, two of the global hotspots for homicides and disappearances, less than 1% of the missing were located and only 10% of homicide cases resulted in convictions. In light of the scale of this challenge, low success rates of law enforcement and legal institutions have driven families of victims and civil society advocates to seek new alliances with technologists and scientists in the hopes of tracking the disappeared and ultimately to create evidence for retributive justice mechanisms like local courts and regional and international mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. From trainings of laypersons in the use of new technologies in remote and local contexts, to case building and issuing judgements in international courts, the deployment of geospatial data is giving rise to complex contestations around access to technical knowledge and the means to generate that knowledge, authority to legitimize data within spheres of power, and, ultimately, how human bodies are located and remembered, with profound consequences for the living. 

By the early 2000s geospatial data began to emerge in the prosecution of crimes against humanity (Freeman 2018), especially in regional and international criminal courts such the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) provided by the US Government (citation) and later at the ICC. Today, private companies based primarily in the US, Canada and Europe have made remotely-sensed imagery much more accessible by launching satellites that can capture imagery at higher resolutions, and launching constellations of satellites capable of more comprehensive coverage of the Earth with a shorter revisit cycle (citation). Among their many customers are governments and investigators. 

The use of such evidence is dramatically increasing. In many of today’s armed conflicts in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, repeated and ongoing violence occurs far from sites that are readily monitored. Investigators often lack access to locations where violence takes place, and they are increasingly turning to satellite images as well as photos, video, and text messages posted to social media, which in turn may be curated by witnesses (and sometimes also by perpetrators) using mobile phones. With the help of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research’s (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme known as UNOSAT as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or governments, international courts and tribunals are increasingly turning to satellite evidence to procure arrests and convictions of perpetrators. The new roles for these technologies and the relationships developing around their use marks an emerging and consequential shift in the logic and practices of international justice.  

This project underway asks how new surveillance technologies and the geospatial data they produce are creating new opportunities for, tests of, and conflicts around international justice? How might new technological tools—such as satellite technologies, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”), GIS, GPS, and artificial intelligence (AI)—give rise to innovations in legal evidence, which in turn have the potential to transform our understandings of justice in the 21st century? How are geospatial and surveillance technologies and the creation of evidentiary platforms both democratizing access to the means of producing justice, while also bringing the limits of those processes into stark relief as forms of knowledge and evidence jostle for legibility and legitimacy within the context of legal proceedings? This three-year project proposes to approach these broadly relevant social questions through a multi-sited, transnational ethnographic study that traces the production and evolution of new forms of evidence from on-the-ground training and data gathering in Mexico and Nigeria to legal cases and decisions brokered locally, regionally and at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands.