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International Effort to Investigate War Crimes Leverages Open-Source Intelligence

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains some descriptions of violence, including sexual violence.

What’s happening?

This week, three countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Slovakia—joined an international team to investigate war crimes in Ukraine via the EU judicial cooperation agency Eurojust. The team already includes Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, and aims to address evidence overlap and duplication while investigating atrocities.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, currently has 15,000 open criminal investigations and over 500 identified suspects related to the war.

Ukraine’s war has provoked an international investigation effort that experts describe as unprecedented in scale and speed. The Washington Post reported that the International Criminal Court has sent its largest-ever team to investigate international law violations on both sides. Other countries, including France and the Netherlands, have also sent investigators.

According to Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, observed war crimes include:

  • Detaining, torturing, and/or executing Ukrainian civilians. This is often targeted at civilians in Russian-occupied areas who are suspected of communicating Russian positions to Ukrainian forces. However, there are also reports of indiscriminate killing of civilians, including the use of cluster munitions and attacks on civilian-occupied buildings like hospitals and schools.
  • Sexual violence. According to Wille, there is evidence of sexual violence towards civilians, though the use of rape as a weapon of war has not yet been observed. 
  • Forcible population transfer and data rights violations. Ukrainian civilians trying to flee occupied areas are being detained by Russians and local authorities in Donestk. From there, they are transferred to filtration camps where they are forced to provide personal data, including biometrics and cellphone data. Deemed a non-threat to Russia, civilians are then transported into Russian territory without coordinating with Kyiv.

On-the-ground investigators like Wille—as well as unprecedented efforts to collect open-source data from social media—have been central to these investigations.

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What’s the impact?

Documenting evidence of war crimes is crucial for holding perpetrators accountable. A solid basis of evidence is valuable in court, especially since international war crimes are particularly hard to prosecute. The explosion of OSINT—a relatively new phenomenon—is also likely to have a lasting impact on the development of international law for war crime prosecution.

Additionally, a collaborative investigation approach leveraging OSINT will help provide a more accurate historical record of the war in Ukraine. Reliable evidence is valuable in the fight against disinformation and makes ground-truth information publicly available to Russian civilians and other populations who are targeted with misleading narratives.

How Can OSINT Help?

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has been instrumental in providing evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Publicly-available sources include satellite imagery and other content shared on social media. In May 2022, the US State Department launched a program to identify and analyze war crimes in Ukraine through social media. Ukraine’s Digital Ministry has even developed digital tools to help civilians, activists, soldiers, and journalists crowdsource and corroborate war crime evidence from the ground. 

These digital tools enable users to identify crimes like civilian violence and detainment, denial of medical care, looting, property seizure, and military activity in residential areas. Since day one of the invasion, OSINT has been crucial in identifying the use of cluster munitions, which have been banned by over 100 countries, in civilian areas.

Some experts argue that OSINT has established a unique role in this war, forging a new path for the use of social media content for conflict zone investigations.

“The use of open-source information as evidence in the case of Ukraine may be at altogether a different level.”

Nadia Volkova, Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group Director

OSINT’s growing demand poses challenges for government intelligence agencies and other investigative groups. The volume of open-source data is overwhelming analysts, who may overlook key insights or lack processes to coordinate effectively with other teams. Sourcing evidence from social media is also challenging. Networks aren’t necessarily designed for evidence collection, and mainstream platforms may even remove graphic content for violating site policies.

These challenges point to the need for specialized OSINT tools that gather, process, and document open-source data for intelligence analysis. These tools are ideal for war crime investigation and other intelligence applications because they provide:

  • Fast, efficient, and secure access to a variety of online sources, from social media to the dark web.
  • Features needed for efficient analysis. This includes capabilities like geolocation, translation, and machine learning techniques that help users analyze content faster. 
  • Access to more covert sources like unindexed forums or regionally-relevant sites that could be overlooked by international analysts.

To learn more about OSINT solutions and relevant data sources in conflict zones of interest, book a call with Echosec Systems today.

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