Using technology to expose Boko Haram's atrocities

Satellite images and video have become critical for human rights researchers and may help bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice

By: /
October 23, 2015
A girl walks past a destroyed mosque in the town of Mararaba, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

I needed up-to-date information on the movements of large numbers of internally displaced persons in the western part of the country in order to help them (...). Repeated requests to western nations for aerial photographs and satellite pictures fell on deaf ears. (Later the Russians were prepared to sell me satellite images, but I had no budget for such an expenditure and could persuade no one to give me one.) 
— Roméo Dallaire, UN Force Commander during the 1994 Rwandan genocide

Two decades after the genocide in Rwanda, where Roméo Dallaire unsuccessfully tried to deploy technology to mitigate the crisis, the situation has dramatically changed for humanitarians and human rights watchdogs. The conflict in northeast Nigeria between the armed group Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces is a prime example of how advanced technology and digital social networks are profoundly changing the way the conflict is communicated and documented: easily accessible satellite images and YouTube videos paint a comprehensive and detailed picture of atrocities committed by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. Most importantly, technology can eventually help to bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice.

In early January 2015, Amnesty International exposed the most destructive Boko Haram attack by then, destroying large parts of the towns of Baga and Doron Baga. We relied on satellite imagery to document more than 3,700 destroyed or damaged structures, in an area that remained inaccessible to human rights researchers and journalists alike. The satellite images garnered massive and much needed media coverage—including on the front page of The New York Times—at a time when the world’s attention was occupied by the deadly attacks on he French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. 

Satellite image of the village of Doro Baga (AKA Doro Gowon) in north-eastern Nigeria taken on 2 January above an image of the same area taken on 7 January. Photograph: Micah Farfour/DigitalGlobe

Documentation Shift

The exposure of the Baga attack is representative of how technology, which was previously only accessible to governments, and the new digital media environment play an increasingly important role in situations of armed conflict. This manifests itself in various areas such as propaganda, activism and documentation. Academics and journalists have given much attention to the use of social media by armed groups, most notably the Islamic State, to spread their message. On the other hand, these groups are creating a permanent record of their atrocities that can be used as evidence in human rights reports, or potentially even in courts.

Before exploring this point further, let’s consider the role of technology in the context of the Nigerian conflict:

  1. Boko Haram is using video, often shared through online social media, to spread its message and propaganda to a global audience. This includes attacks on military facilities and kidnapped civilians. The group is apparently getting more professional in its social media communications recently, due to its reported alliance with the Islamic State.
  2. Citizen media, such as videos and images, from survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, document violations, including likely war crimes. For example, online videos show Boko Haram members executing several men in on a bridge in Bama last fall.
  3. Satellite images provide a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the scale of atrocities, such as the January 2015 attack referenced above. This technology gains importance in situations where Boko Haram is slowing down communications by destroying cell phone towers. The emergence of micro-satellites and satellite video will make this technology even more critical for human rights researchers.
  4. Social media campaigns draw global attention to specific incidents, such as the abduction of the Chibok girls in April 2014. (Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in return mocked the campaign, by releasing a new video).

How is this shift helping to bring the perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities to justice? The increased capability, including by non-governmental groups, to document atrocities can help with securing accountability in the long run.

Let’s not forget that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is conducting a preliminary examination into the conflict, with the Office of the Prosecutor concluding last year that members of Boko Haram had committed crimes against humanity and may have committed war crimes. Images and videos of the atrocities can play a role in any future investigation and ultimately trial, no matter if it is done by the ICC or a national court. Of course, legal admissibility rules are strict and we should not expect that courts will automatically accept every satellite image or YouTube video of an atrocity. However, I strongly believe that such material will be able to support investigations (in addition to human rights research and advocacy).

There is at least some precedence: For example, video was used in the case against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first person ever convicted by the ICC (for the use of child soldiers). Satellite images have been used before various international and regional tribunals. 

To be clear: There is no easy fix to end the conflict in northeast Nigeria, or to secure justice. Suggesting that any tech tool could do that would be a stark oversimplification, and plain and simply wrong. Nor is it the ICC’s job to end armed conflicts. However, accountability mechanisms with their focus on individual criminal responsibility play a crucial role during post-conflict reconciliation and can contribute to ensuring a sustainable peace. With more and more tech tools at our fingertips to expose atrocities that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, we are better equipped to achieve this ultimate goal. 

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Amnesty International.

Also in the series

Founded more than 10 years ago, Boko Haram, the extremist group in northern Nigeria, jolted into global consciousness with the abduction of nearly 300 girls in April, 2014


My Nigeria, paying the wages of appeasement

The challenge Boko Haram poses to Nigeria is “neither unique, nor unpredicted,” as Wole Soyinka writes. But, it needs to be better understood. 


Boko Haram, Nigeria, Africa — where’s the news coverage?

Media attention can inspire policy change and promote a greater understanding of an issue. On Boko Haram, we have a long way to go. 


Why President Buhari’s biggest challenge is yet to come

Signs are emerging that Boko Haram has been dealt a crippling blow, but Nigeria’s new government has yet to deal with the group’s changing tactics, and the millions internally displaced.


Boko Haram’s Evolution: How it got this far, and how to stop it

Addressing bad governance, corruption and under-development is more crucial than military counter-measures.


Coming face-to-face with a child soldier

Boko Haram’s ranks are estimated to be 40 percent children. Let’s face those facts now, to better prepare soldiers that might meet them in the field.