In the News: Authenticating Video Footage as Evidence in Sri Lanka

Posted on August 4, 2011 by WITNESS

Mariel Gruszko is a WITNESS intern working with the “Cameras Everywhere” and “Tools and Tactics” initiatives. She recently obtained an MA degree specializing in media anthropology. Read her previous post on the blog here.

Over the past two years, mobile phone footage of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka has been at the center of a conversation regarding the evidentiary value of amateur video. The usage of this footage in documentary film-making and UN inquiries alike is revealing in terms of how video shot by activists, bystanders, perpetrators, and officials is increasingly relevant to the investigation and media coverage of human rights violations around the world.

Still image from Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, a production of Channel 4 UK

Still image from Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, a production of Channel 4 UK

In 2009, the UK’s Channel 4 News broadcast a mobile phone recording of soldiers wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms executing prisoners. The broadcast caused a global debate regarding the authenticity of the footage and the nature of the war crimes exposed, which Dan Verderosa explored in a post on the Hub.

Channel 4 Releases Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields as Call to Action

In June 2011, Channel 4 released Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, a long-form documentary of the atrocities committed during the final phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war. (Warning: this video contains material of a graphic and disturbing nature.) The film’s prime-time broadcast in the UK was controversial because of the extreme degree of violence it depicts. Writing for The Guardian, the film’s director, Callum McCrae, explains that if the film’s “horrific images” are “the only way to make people take this seriously, we believe it is the right thing to show these images.”

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields relies on first-hand footage for much of its power and evidentiary value. McCrae says that he hopes that those who dislike the film will stop claiming that its footage has been faked and instead engage with the question of what should be done about the events it portrays.

Panel of Experts Uses Citizen Video as Corroborating Evidence

Like the team behind Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, UN-affiliated inquiries regarding atrocities committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war have treated amateur footage as a credible source of information and documentation. Since the first clip of alleged executions by government soldiers was broadcast, two UN-affiliated bodies—the Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka and the Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions—have discovered credible allegations that violations of international human rights law were committed by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a Panel of Experts (POE) to advise him on the steps the UN should take to institutionalize accountability for the civil war. The POE Report “found credible allegations…of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka,” including: killing of civilians; shelling of hospitals; denial of humanitarian assistance; violation of the human rights of victims and survivors of the conflict; and human rights violations against the media and other government critics.  The report recommended that the UN begin an independent investigation of the civil war, but Ban emphasized that this would require Sri Lanka’s consent or member states’ action.

A second still from Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, produced by Channel 4 UK

A second still from Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, produced by Channel 4 UK

The POE considered allegations credible if they were based on trustworthy primary sources and corroborated by other direct and indirect sources. They report that citizen-submitted video and photographic footage “could not be individually verified by the Panel” and was therefore not used as a primary source, but did help “to corroborate other sources of information.” Video has been used to corroborate or contextualize other information within the arena of war crimes investigations since the Nuremberg trials. WITNESS’ Video for Change book includes a chapter on Video as Evidence (PDF) that explains the use and admissibility of video as direct, corroborating, and contextualizing evidence in human rights-related investigations and trials.

Special Rapporteur: Sri Lanka Footage is Evidence of War Crimes

Communications on Sri Lanka from the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions also treat film footage as credible evidence. Here, video is at the very center of the investigation. In 2010 then-Special Rapporteur Philip Alston commissioned reports from independent experts to examine the videotape broadcast by Channel 4. The experts—an audio and video expert, a forensic pathologist, and a ballistics expert—concluded that the clip was authentic.

For example, the audio and video expert conducted a frame-by-frame analysis to determine if there were any breaks in continuity, anachronisms, or visual anomalies that could indicate that someone had tampered with the footage.

In addition to their conclusion that the footage was authentic, the experts noted certain “unresolved” elements in the footage that required further explanation or investigation. In its response to Alston’s investigation, Sri Lanka used these “unresolved” elements to contest the authenticity of the video footage. The government did not contest the qualifications of the experts who had prepared the report or the content of the video.

Consequently, when Christof Heyns, the current Special Rapporteur, gained access to an extended version of the Channel 4 tape, his investigation focused on the footage’s authenticity. The extended footage was examined by the same independent experts who had examined the first tape.

Heyns concluded that “serious international crimes” were committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war because the new footage allowed the experts to explain the “unresolved” elements that they had identified in their first report and which had been at the heart of the government of Sri Lanka’s objection. Tanya O’Carroll has written for this blog about the importance of contextualizing footage to corroborating and authenticating video.

Heyns writes that “the events that are reflected in the video in fact occurred as depicted. These videos–both the first and the extended version–show real people who are being summarily executed.” The experts’ reports serve, he continues, “as a coherent and credible foundation for the conclusion that the extended video is authentic, and thus warrants calling for the accountability of those responsible for these atrocities.”

Heyns emphasized that any domestic and international investigations of the “definitive war crimes” depicted in the footage should examine both the extended video and any other available evidence. Because the extended video shows soldiers recording the execution on their cell phones, he suggests that other recordings of the event might be available. He further anticipates that the video footage can be linked to other evidentiary material to elucidate the events of the final phase of the war.

Heyns’ report treats a video that has been authenticated as prima facie evidence of crimes, even if no other corroborating evidence is immediately available. Yet this apparently self-evident footage was contested for more than a year before the Special Rapporteur’s office reached a conclusion.

The Future for Amateur Footage as Evidence

Even now, the footage’s evidentiary value is treated differently by various UN bodies. Even if it is accepted as credible, authentic evidence, such footage may not be sufficient to prompt national or international judicial investigation. The POE and Special Rapporteur, for example, after investigating the credibility of video footage of executions and other specific allegations and pieces of evidence, recommended that the UN launch a full, independent investigation of the entire sequence of events that ensued in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. But the UN has not acted to meet these recommendations. However, there is reason to hope however that citizen footage and amateur footage will start to play an increasing role in ensuring that human rights violations come to light, and that justice is secured.

What Others Are Saying

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  2. Murali Shanmugavelan August 8, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    “The broadcast caused a global debate regarding the authenticity of the footage and the nature of the war crimes exposed”… REALLY?? You’ve got to be kidding!

    As someone who has been following this issues for decades, I see the real problem is lack of debate by anyone with any perspective outside Sri Lanka. It is just the Sri Lankan (largely Sinhalese) government that was unwilling to be held to account. Please do not legitimise Sri Lankan govt’s refusal by calling it a global debate.

    The UN’s deafening silence has nothing to do with authenticating videos. EVERYONE knows that. If the blogger (or the Witness) really thinks that this whole delay in the enquiry on this war crimes is due to authenticating videos, then you are missing the bigger conflict-politics and placing more faith on communication technologies.

    Such short-sighted analysis and debates on communication tools and its impact on conflict-ridden societies can revive another wave of techno-deterministic faith. But the real analysis on why some conflict gets less attention than others is a broader political issue. I don’t want to discuss it here as I understand Witness is not the platform for that.

    When the international communities back(ed) protests and supported certain actions and/or opposed governments, the authenticity of footages or tweets was never an issue. The Security Council was convened and a decision was made.

    Having said that, I thank Witness for using its space to discuss Sri Lanka’s war crimes issue.

  3. Julie Wood August 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Am I just a dumb citizen and missing something glaringly obvious? I don’t understand where the grey area is, or is it fear? How is it that these atrocities have become secondary to the source of the footage; Its been authenticated? Too much diplomacy and procrastination seems to be counterproductive. What can I do from my armchair, I feel so ashamed.

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