"There ain't no justice, just us" - war crimes impunity in the digital age

One of the darkest things about war crimes is that most of the perpetrators get away with it. From Pinochet to Serb paramilitaries, the men (& it's mostly men) involved in acts of vile horror carry on with their lives untouched by justice. Will the digital age have any impact on impunity? If you need convincing about impunity, the Guardian's Datastore has taken the data provided by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague and compiled a spreadsheet of the cases that have been concluded. Set against the scale and duration of the horror, this is an essay in ineffectiveness. And listen to the women from the Omarska concentration camp recount their experiences on BBC radio. Their job was to clean the torture rooms of skin, teeth, hair; at night they were raped. Having bravely returned her home town of Prijedor, one the muslim women regularly comes face-to-face with her tormentors while the war memorial in the town glorifies the Serb 'war heroes'. I know from personal accounts that the spectacle of the ICTY is wholly failing to bring closure to those who experienced ethnic cleansing. But behind the horror there's the determination of some women to fight for justice. Having set up an association for women victims of war in Sarajevo, they have also become a detective agency, taking witness statements and tracking down & photographing perpetrators based on 'crowdsourced' identification of the men in the statements - a process that starts to sound a lot like the citizen journalism ushered in by digital tech. What impact could citizen journalism & social reporting have in unblocking the politically-motivated inertia of official war crimes investigations?
(Photo from Calling the Ghosts, A Story about Rape, War and Women by Women Make Movies) Another challenge is highlighted by the Kenyan election violence of 2007. On the one hand, this was the stimulus for Ushahidi, open source software which uses the lessons learned from Kenya to create a platform that allows anyone around the world to set up their own way to gather reports by mobile phone, email and the web - and map them. Ushahidi has now been used in many critical situations around the world including the first European application at our Social Innovation Camp Central and Eastern Europe by the Map Your Nazi project. Ushahidi is an exemplar of bottom-up digital innovation, but more than 2 years later no-one in Kenya has been prosecuted for the crimes against humanity that it helped to map. It turns out that neither a mashup nor the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court can have much impact on the political forces that trade power for impunity. My contention is that the real impact of digital comes from it's catalysis of horizontal process, social action that routes around institutional complicity. Could Ushahidi or something like it be used to convene activities of transitional justice - people-powered initiatives that take on the need to confront legacies of mass abuse? I'm not talking about the real-world equivalent of a Twitter lynch mob but holistic additions to criminal prosecutions that promote accountability and create just and peaceful societies. These would need to be more active than digital memorials. Perhaps we should apply the radical transparency of wikileaks to the archive of the war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia and pipe the results through citizen-up initiatives like we20? Whatever the challenges of transparency 2.0, the alternative is to freeze societies in a state of denial. Despite the efforts of Michael Portillo most Brit holidaymakers are still unaware that the beaches of Malaga contain mass graves of Republican sympathisers shot by Franco. Even though I count myself knowledgable about the Spanish Civil War, I visited Granada without knowing that the hills we strolled over still conceal 10,000 bodies. The psychic damage to Spanish culture is still in full effect thanks to the 'Pact of Forgetting' and the 1977 amnesty law. The transparency of the digital age is not just about open data but the surfacing of suppressed histories as starting points for transformation.
(Photo credit Mike Elkin & archaeology.org)