Apps can help fight impunity for conflict-related sexual violence

UN Human Rights
May 10 · 5 min read

Technology can help survivors of conflict-based sexual violence report what has happened as well as receive help. The key is ensuring the needs of survivors are taken into account of the design.

A Yemeni uses a cell phone to take photos of a wounded woman as she lies in a bed receiving treatment. Apps for mobile phones are being trialed to help victims of conflict-based violence. EPA-EFE/Yahya Arhab

Technology has a huge role to play when it comes to finding innovative ways to assist victims of sexual violence during conflict, said Céline Bardet, founder and president of We are not Weapons of War.

“What technology does is it accelerates things and it allows us to reach people or a zone that we couldn’t otherwise,” Bardet said.

Bardet’s NGO battles against the use of rape as a weapon in conflict. Her organization has recently created Back Up, an app that allows victims of rape to report it and access help. The app also gathers the data on rape instances for use in later prosecutions.

The app has been trialed in Libya, with great results, Bardet said. As a direct result of the information gathered and later analysed from the secure external server, the NGO filed a complaint for acts of torture and barbarity against Libyan commander Maréchal Haftar in the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris last year.

“We could lodge a complaint because we were able to access information through the Back Up,” Bardet said. “It validated the process. There are lots of people who have been identifying themselves, telling us about what happened to them. . . many who said ‘this tool helped me to heal.’”

Tech a useful tool

The Back Up is an example of how technology can be a safe and critical tool in working on human rights challenges, said Peggy Hicks. During a recent round table looking into the use of tech to combat conflict related sexual violence (CRSV), tech professionals and NGOs explored how technology can support efforts to respond and prevent CRSV.

Hicks said that technology is a useful tool when it comes to the critical step of recording accurate information to challenge impunity for such crimes.

“Technology is increasingly assisting the documentation of the experiences of survivors of sexual violence — a critical step towards accountability,” she said during the round table.

Yet technology will do little good if people who need it don’t have access to it, said Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, who co-sponsored the round table. The digital gender divide is real, with the proportion of men using the internet is still higher than those of women worldwide, with only one in seven women online in developing countries. Mulvey said any tech that looks into handling CRSV must consider how to overcome this gap.

“There are so many issues, such as many people being illiterate, not having access to smart phones, and lack of accessibility to the internet,” she said during the round table. “How can this be overcome? How can you make the technology survivor friendly?”

Tech depends on the humans behind it

Press encounter with the President of the UN General Assembly during an SDG Action Event on Innovation. UN Photo/ Mark Garten

Efforts to integrate new technologies into addressing human rights challenges have been a focus of our work, said Scott Campbell, from the UN Human Rights Office. In the last few years, the Office has considered new technologies under two broad pillars — that of tech as a tool and that of tech as a challenge.

“I think that the Office has realized over the last few years that our daily lives and our human rights are increasingly impacted by the use of technologies in very broad and different ways,” he said.

One way to make technology more human rights friendly is to get those who create it to incorporate human rights principles into design and development of tech products and policies, Campbell said. Artificial intelligence algorithms, for example, can reflect the biases of those creating it, and the use of biased data can further contribute to discriminatory outcomes, for example.

“Technology depends on the humans who are designing it, who are developing the policies about the use of the technology and who are monitoring its use once it is rolled out,” he said.

Campbell said the Office is currently developing a project to explore how the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights may translate in practice for technology companies, including what appropriate regulatory and policy measures states can take to prevent and mitigate human rights risks related to the technology sector. In addition, Campbell said the Office is seeking to incorporate new technologies in its methodology to strengthen monitoring, investigating and reporting on human rights.

Apps to end impunity

Every year, thousands of adults and children are raped in conflict zones around the world. Many don’t report the crime and when they do, many of the cases fail because of poor evidence.

Gladys Ngwepekeum Nkeh is a UN Police officer who serves as a gender officer in MINUSCA. Among her duties, she provides sensitization classes on sexual education to prevent gender based violence at local schools. UN Photo/ Eskinder Debebe

Physicians for Human Rights developed solution based on using high-tech back up for the low-tech medical report. They created the mobile app Medicapt. Using a standard medical intake form for forensic documentation, Medicapt combines this with a digital platform and a secure mobile camera. Health care providers can use the app to compile medical evidence, photograph survivor’s injuries, and securely transmit the data to police, lawyers, judges involved in prosecuting sexual violence crimes. The app is already in use in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Kenya.

Georges Kuzma, a police and justice expert with the group, said the app has already made a big difference the areas where it has been trialed. The biggest being an improvement in the knowledge of medical professionals to handle documenting evidence of rape and other forms of sexual violence, he said.

“Not all the doctors know what forensic examination is, so this has helped these doctors, who are not specialists, conduct examinations of victims of [such crimes] anywhere in the world,” Kuzuma said.

This kind of improvement in documentation and storage of evidence from survivors is a key way that technology can work for survivors of sexual violence, said Hicks.

“We need to use technology innovation towards those in most vulnerable situations and make a difference,” she said.

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