Berlin’s No.1 Digital Detective Agency On Track Of Human Rights Abusers | Human rights

With its high ceilings, white walls and whitewashed pine furniture, this could be one of the many artist studios or galleries that dot this corner of central Berlin. A gray curtain pierced with plastic holes, sewn by Franco-Italian artist Céline Condorelli, winds between the offices to divide the room into public and private spaces.

In fact, this second-floor space inside an old beige brick soap factory is something closer to a newsroom or a detective agency, tripling a law firm. Next month, it will be officially launched as the headquarters of the Investigative Commons, a sort of super-hub for organizations whose work has revolutionized the field of human rights activism.

Most of the offices will be occupied by Forensic Architecture, a team of architects, archaeologists and journalists whose digital models of crime scenes have been cited as evidence at the International Criminal Court, contributed to the conviction of the neo-Nazi leaders of the Golden Dawn party, and led to an unprecedented apology from Benjamin Netanyahu for the accidental murder of a Bedouin teacher.

Then there is the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a human rights NGO headquartered on the lower floor, which last year brought to court the world’s first case against Syrian state torture.

Bellingcat – the organization launched by British blogger Eliot Higgins that exposed the perpetrators of the poisonings of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny – will have his name on a desk at the hub as well as Mnemonic. , a Berlin-based group of Syrian exiles who are building databases to archive evidence of war crimes in their home countries, and Laura Poitras, the American filmmaker who worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden for expose the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance program.

They all share, Poitras says, “a commitment to primary evidence”: each group works at the forefront of what is now called “open source intelligence”, mass collection, modeling and review. publicly accessible material from Google Earth, social media posts or YouTube videos. In the post-truth era, they excel at the arduous task of corroborating the facts behind the disputed events. “The traditional model for human rights work is that you have a large NGO that sends experts to the front line of a conflict, talks to the sources and then writes a report when they return,” says Eyal Weizman, British founder -Israelian from Forensic Architecture. “Today the evidence is produced by people on the front lines of the struggle. You no longer have a single trusted source but dozens of sources, from satellite images to smartphone data. Our challenge lies in assembling these sources.

Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism site Bellingcat. Photography: Fabio De Paola / L’Observateur

These groups have sometimes collaborated, but largely followed their own path for more than a decade. The decision to pool their investigative tools, with the added legal weight of the ECCHR, is a sign that open source investigations could mature, moving further away from art and academia towards a world where the ultimate judge of their work will be a sober and wiggly individual in a courtroom.

“Facts need good litigators,” Weizman says. “Human rights work is transforming: you had these big clearinghouse-type NGOs doing it all. Now, it looks more like an ecosystem of investigators and litigants. Rather than just one person writing a report, there is a constant workshop, with people who are brought in all the time as confidentiality permits. “

As with any All-Star team, there is a risk that key players will step on each other’s toes as they battle for the same position on the pitch.

“Of course there is some tension,” says ECCHR founder Wolfgang Kaleck. “You have to know which field you are playing on at a given stadium and what the rules of the game are.”

The first showcase of physical collaboration is a joint investigation documenting human rights violations in Yemen. Syrian journalist Hadi al-Khatib’s Mnemonic has amassed and verified thousands of videos of airstrikes in the multifaceted civil war at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

Forensic Architecture applied its own mapping software to tell the story of these incidents across time and space. The testimonies of the scenes of these attacks, such as fragments of ammunition found on the spot, then provided clues to the identity of the Western manufacturers of the weapons used – this is where the lawyers of the ECCHR intervened.

The fact that this assembly line for investigating human rights violations is physically located in Berlin has a lot to do with the history and social environment of the German capital – but also the working conditions of investigation in post-Brexit Britain.

The Investigative Commons exhibit at HKW.
The Investigative Commons exhibit at HKW. Photography: Miguel Brusch

Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture were once British success stories. The first was launched in 2014 in the reception hall of Leicester-based Higgins, then still office worker-blogger under the Frank Zappa-inspired name Brown Moses. The latter is from, and continues to be affiliated with, Goldsmiths, University of London, and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018.

But as these groups have grown through their successes, Britain’s departure from the EU has made it more difficult to bring in new researchers of international origin, with EU nationals now required to present a proof of establishment status or a skilled worker visa. . Goldsmiths announced a hiring freeze last May.

For many people working in the non-commercial sector, the appeal of the UK has faded. “Of all the talented software developers we knew and wanted to hire, those who wanted to move to London wanted to work in finance,” says Robert Trafford, research coordinator for Forensic Architecture. “Those who lived in Berlin wanted to bring down the FBI.” Frankfurt, not Berlin, is the banking capital of Germany, which is one of the reasons renting in Berlin is always cheaper than in many other major European cities, allowing young people to pursue activities that might not be possible. not pay dividends in the short term.

The annual re: publica technical conference in Berlin and financial support structures, such as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s € 47,500 (£ 40,000) prototype fund for ‘socially relevant open source projects’, have also contributed to make it what Weizman calls “a unique sociotope”. “We had some amazing coders who wanted to work for us but said, ‘I would never leave Berlin for London. “”

Traditional human rights NGOs have started to use Berlin as a venue to launch their own open source investigations. Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab, which used satellite technology and 3D modeling to uncover human rights violations in Ethiopia and Myanmar, has been run from the city for five years. Human Rights Watch’s Digital Investigations Lab has key staff in Berlin, as well as a project with the German space agency.

Bellingcat, which rose to prominence through an investigation into the 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, moved its main offices to the Dutch capital in 2018. “Brexit has creates uncertainties on the horizon, ”explains Higgins. “We didn’t want to be in a position where our international staff couldn’t stay in the UK. We needed something that gave us more flexibility.

A model to answer a question about a murder in a Bedouin village in Israel.
A model to answer a question about a murder in a Bedouin village in Israel. Photography: Forensic Architecture 2021

Another factor behind this decision was that investigative journalism per se is not a recognized charitable goal in the UK and, therefore, has limited access to funding opportunities and organizational tax benefits. charities. In the Netherlands, Bellingcat is now incorporated sewing, or foundation.

In addition to being a founding member of the Investigative Commons, Forensic Architecture moves a quarter of its staff to Germany to create Forensis, an NGO that will be a registered association or eingetragener Verein under German law, allowing it to access funding that would not be available in the UK. It will focus its work on human rights issues with a European dimension, from cybersurveillance and right-wing extremism to immigration.

The University of London will continue to be the home of the group of digital sleuths, but could eventually become more of an “incubator” for new research methods, Weizman explains.

Berlin has already been in a similar situation. Around 2014, the city briefly appeared to have become the ultimate safe haven in the world, from where hackers, human rights groups and artists would speak out against humanitarian abuses around the world.

WikiLeaks staff have been stranded in the Berlin counter-culture scene, fearing that they will be arrested on their return to the US or UK. Poitras edited his film Snowden, Citizenfour, in the city, fearing that its source material could be seized by the US government. Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xia, Liao Yiwu, and Ai Weiwei have also found new homes here.

For many reasons, this promise has not been kept. Ai became enraged by the rude taxi drivers in town. WikiLeaks’ vision of radical transparency has proven difficult to reconcile with proven methods of defending human rights.

“Maybe then the expectation of what Berlin might become was just too great,” says Kaleck, Snowden’s lawyer. Nowadays, Berlin is perhaps less of a city to dream of digital revolutions, and more of a place to work. “We’re on the right track now – it’s a good place to start. “

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