Distinguished colleagues and guests, it’s an honor to address you today in my capacity as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice and to moderate today’s workshop. My deepest thanks to the McCain Institute for convening such an important gathering of leading thinkers operating at the intersection of technology and accountability.
We are now almost a year into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and President Putin’s war against Ukraine continues to generate devastating human costs: thousands of civilians killed or wounded, 13 million Ukrainian citizens forced to flee their homes, historic cities literally pounded to rubble, food shortages, and skyrocketing food prices around the world.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a manifest violation of the U.N. Charter. There is mounting evidence that this aggression has been accompanied by war crimes committed in every region where Russia’s forces are deployed. This includes reports of deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects; custodial abuses of civilians and POWs; and efforts to cover up these offenses. Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has already identified thousands of incidents that may constitute war crimes, and this without yet knowing all that is unfolding in areas still under Russia’s occupation or control. We expect that evidence of more atrocities will continue to emerge as additional areas are liberated.
Ensuring accountability for these crimes is imperative. We know full well that winning the war doesn’t just mean winning on the battlefield; it means also winning the fight for justice. At the helm of this effort is Prosecutor General Kostin, whom I am honored to introduce together with other members of his office.
This is where you all come in. The United States is thinking broadly and creatively—with our allies, civil society, investigative bodies, and the tech sector—about how to harness new digital technologies to uncover and preserve evidence, document crimes, identify perpetrators, and protect witnesses. To assist me with this initiative, I appointed a senior advisor who brings expertise working at Google leading high-risk investigations, including on misinformation and disinformation, and as a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
As part of this work, we are exploring the development of cutting edge technologies aimed at improving the ability to exploit potential digital evidence revealing the commission of international crimes with an eye toward helping Ukraine enhance its digital and technical infrastructure for collecting, categorizing, analyzing, and submitting evidence to domestic or international proceedings, including against senior Russian figures responsible for the daily atrocities we witness. We are at a historic point at which advances in mobile phone technology and social media penetration and use have created a world in which the volume of information generated and shared is outpacing the ability of humans to review and use that data. The sheer quantity of information, and its varied nature, has made finding proverbial “smoking gun” evidence akin to searching for a needle in a stack of needles.
It is in this context that machine learning and other “big data” analytical tools are no longer luxuries of the trade, but essential justice tools to ease the burdens of analyzing such large quantities of information to make sense of that data and gain insights relevant to accountability. We have already seen machine learning being used to uncover mass graves in Mexico, find evidence of homes and schools destroyed in Darfur, detect fake videos and doctored evidence, and gather evidence of war crimes in Syria.
In addition, the United States is investing significant resources to harness digital resources to uncover mass atrocities committed in Ukraine. In May of last year, the State Department launched a new independent Conflict Observatory at Yale University to aggregate commercial data and open source information—including satellite imagery and information shared via social media platforms—to capture, aggregate, analyze, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. Using the Berkeley Protocol, the Conflict Observatory has already produced amazing work, including examining the relationship between armed conflict and the displacement and return of civilians in Ukraine and reports on attacks directed against cultural property, schools, and hospitals and on Russia’s filtration operations.
We know that social media companies possess vital information concerning the commission of international crimes. Content posted on Facebook served as the basis for the ICC arrest warrant issued against former Libyan commander Mahmoud Al-Werfalli. In Sweden, a court convicted a Syrian national of war crimes, based in part on trophy evidence he posted to Facebook. International and local non-profit organizations like Human Rights Watch and Bellingcat rely upon social media content for reporting on Russia’s human rights abuses and atrocities in Ukraine. And, undoubtedly, that content will be used for further accountability in Ukraine or before international institutions, like the ICC, currently mandated with investigating those crimes.
Together with our partners in the State Department and the Department of Justice, including many of our colleagues here, we are helping the Office of the Prosecutor General audit its technical needs, using the expertise and experience within DOJ to identify what technologies and analytical tools will best position Ukrainian prosecutors to effectively, and efficiently, investigate, analyze, and prosecute the thousands of international crimes that have been recorded so far. For that we are thankful to Eli Rosenbaum and our friends from the Department of Justice for their support.
We are also in active conversations with many of you to devise strategies to enhance cybersecurity protection for witnesses who take the courageous step to contribute to international investigations. Notwithstanding the growing impact of open source information in criminal trials, witnesses—be they victims, experts, or insiders—remain a vital part of any effective international investigation and prosecution. Recognizing the need to protect witnesses, the Rome Statute, for example, goes to great lengths to establish comprehensive, wide-ranging, and innovative systems for protecting witnesses, including specific rules and regulations concerning victims of sexual and gender-based crimes. As it relates to tech, our strategy takes a variety of forms, from examining how we can enhance cybersecurity literacy among witnesses, working with private companies to share intelligence on cybersecurity threats with accountability mechanisms, and improving the capacity of different mechanisms to identify and remediate internal and external threats.
Of course, the same technologies we would disseminate within the justice context also come with significant risks. Digital tools are highly susceptible to abuse and bias. For that reason, it is essential that convenings like this, among true experts, continue. They allow us to learn from each other, impart our respective expertise, and identify technical gaps and solutions to emerging legal problems in hopes of collectively pushing forward efforts on accountability.
On that note, I thank you all for joining us today. I look forward to hearing your valuable insights.