Hadi Al Khatib

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Germany
Fellow since 2021
This description of Hadi Al Khatib's work was prepared when Hadi Al Khatib was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2021.

Introduction

While digital records and social media are key parts of our lives globally, their role in creating accountability for crimes and human rights abuses remains underutilized. Hadi pioneers a systematic, citizen-led way of collecting, preserving, and verifying digital records. Through this, he not only fosters human rights, but challenges power dynamics between repressive governments and civil society, laying the groundwork for how civil society is empowered in the quickly changing digital world.

The New Idea

Hadi leverages the value of open-source digital information as a resource to promote and enforce human rights in fragile or politically repressive contexts. He does so by introducing new methods of verification and preservation which allows for digital information to become complementary proof for human rights investigations, documentation, and accountability. On the one hand, this allows him to harness the potential of citizen-generated video content on social media and the internet to strengthen legal accountability for human rights violations globally. On the other hand, preserving digital evidence also weakens the potential for abuse of social media for political propaganda. The new resource of proof comes along with a change in the role of evidence providers in ensuring accountability in human rights violations: it is the citizens and civil society organizations who take on a critical role in providing digital information in areas inaccessible for on-the-ground investigations.

By building an organized, secure, and open-source repository of content related to human rights abuses in Syria, the Syrian Archive now serves as a lighthouse for the human rights field. Following its example, Hadi subsequently introduced the Yemeni Archive as well as the Sudanese Archive. Hadi moreover strengthens the ecosystem of human rights defenders using open-source data to advance social justice. To systematically transfer the knowledge and lessons learned and replicate his model in other conflict regions, Hadi founded Mnemonic, which has become a major catalyst and resource for human rights defenders and journalists internationally.

Mnemonic not only develops and provides the technical tools, methodologies, and trainings for actors to make effective use of digital evidence in criminal and human rights investigations, but also helps them to establish open-source databases of verified digital content for its long-time preservation. A skillful coalition builder, Hadi is engaging an international network of human rights groups, journalists, media activists, and humanitarian workers that uses this documentation for open-source investigations and reporting, evidence-based advocacy, and criminal case building.

The Problem

The international legal framework and political will to prosecute and investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide have grown substantially. However, impunity continues to prevail in situations where access to evidence by official investigative bodies is restricted by diplomatic barriers or conflict. This is the case in Syria, for example, where international investigations often have no access to the physical locations at which the incidents took place. Moreover, internationally mandated investigations, including those conducted by United Nations or those authorized by the ICC, are dependent on legal and political processes for the necessary permits. Thus, they are often conducted long after the events. In contexts of conflict, international investigators are restricted from collecting evidence. Without access to victim communities on the ground, “traditional” human rights investigative methods, such as the gathering of direct eyewitness accounts, become impractical. The lack of sufficient quality evidence hinders efforts to bring those responsible to justice, creating accountability gaps that can allow perpetrators to deny and hide wrongdoing from the public view.

With the rise of digital technologies globally, including widespread use of smartphones and social media networks, human rights investigators and networks now have access to more information than ever before. In conflicts like Syria, civilians and eyewitnesses capture and disseminate millions of videos and images of human rights violations everyday using their mobile devices and social media platforms. This massive amount of potential evidence presents new opportunities and means for accountability. Not only does digital open-source information help to overcome some of the physical barriers investigators face, it has also been heralded for its democratizing potential, insofar as it allows access to a much broader range of sources and voices than would normally be consulted through traditional methods of information gathering for international criminal investigations.

However, due to the relative newness of the field, there is little or no available best-practices on how to discover, verify, and store relevant material from an increasing volume of online information. Making efficient use of these massive quantities of data requires a new skillset for human rights investigators, alongside the tools and techniques for preserving and analyzing this information at scale – the current human rights field is lacking both. As a result, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, researchers, and other activists have been using digital open-source information in a largely ad hoc manner, not thinking about the long-term use and storage of this data. Especially in situations of emerging political conflict there is a huge need for human rights defenders on the ground to preserve vulnerable digital information fast and securely to ensure that valuable evidence is not lost or rendered unusable for future transitional justice processes. Moreover, the inability of actors to verify sources further leaves them with no means to counter the spread of mis/disinformation in conflict-affected areas and there are no aligned quality standards for its documentation, so that the potential evidence often becomes inadmissible for international courts.

Social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have become “accidental”, but unstable archives for millions of important videos and posts. With social media sites increasingly using automated resources to identify and remove graphic content from their channels due to potential terms of service or community standards violations, crucial information about human rights abuses has been disappearing from online sources at a new and alarming scale and speed. Thus, human rights activists are in a race against time to capture the information being sent from war zones to the outside world that may become critical to later establishing the who, what, where, when, and how of any crimes that may have been committed.

The Strategy

Hadi’s work began with the creation of the Syrian Archive, which he built in 2014 in response to the conflict in Syria as a low-cost, sustainable, and rapid-response initiative to archive content quickly before it was removed from online platforms. To date it has worked to secure long-term preservation and verification of more than 3.5 million records of digital content from more than 3,000 sources. Mnemonic grew out of the recognition that the Syrian Archive’s workflows could be adapted to other locations where human rights violations must be documented and preserved but the ecosystems to do so are underdeveloped. Since 2017, Mnemonic uses its unique position as a cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary organization to equip human defenders with the skills and capacity to preserve and document human rights violations and other crimes for use in reporting, justice, and accountability processes. Having been one of the first innovators to establish an independent and reliable technical infrastructure for collecting and storing citizen-generated digital content, Hadi is now creating blueprints for how this data, once verified, can be used strategically to provide added value to human rights reporting, advocacy, and investigation.

There are two central pillars to his strategy today. The first pillar is the backbone of his work, building the technical infrastructure and the open-source tools and methodologies to preserve at-risk digital content. Hadi and his team develop accessible and long-term preservation strategies and open-source tools for human rights defenders to identify, verify, and preserve digital content that is already published online and publicly available. The digital evidence workflow is divided into five unique yet sometimes overlapping components: (1) Identify user-generated visual documentation of human rights violations from offline and online sources, (2) Securely store and organize visual documentation using a standardized metadata scheme, 3) Verify visual documentation using geolocation, (4) Review, and (5) Publish visual documentation in an open-source format while preserving the integrity of the verified data. All stages of its archival work are open source: it is possible to show how the data was discovered, how it was acquired, and the process by which data has been transformed, processed, and analyzed. For Hadi, this transparency is critical to build trust within the criminal justice system and ultimately obtain admissibility of digital evidence. Software, workflows, and methods developed by Mnemonic are also released in free and open-source formats, allowing for increased flexibility, scalability, and customization by other human rights groups. In doing so, Mnemonic fills key gaps in the documentation efforts of international human rights actors, enabling civil society to become guardians for important sensitive datasets vis-à-vis private institutions and governments.

This infrastructure supports the preservation of content through archival projects. Through their own archival projects, Mnemonic produces and curates publicly available databases of verified documentation. These databases contain hundreds of verified incidents and corresponding videos that can be viewed and downloaded by journalists, activists, and legal groups. At the core are Mnemonic’s three archives: Syrian Archive, Yemenis Archive, and Sudanese Archive, which combined have stored over 10 million records from over 9,000 sources across various social media platforms. These archives serve as a best practice for civil society on how to create standalone infrastructures non-reliant on private technology companies.

On the other hand, it also helps engage with social media platforms to reinstate their content. To stop the permanent erasure of critical documentation, Mnemonic collects quantitative data on the real impact of content moderation policies, as well as qualitative data on the types of content being removed. This data is not only the foundation of Hadi’s advocacy work for a more critical approach towards content moderation, but also allows him to provide civil society with the missing data to substantiate their claims. Sensitizing and educating key partners in media, academia and civil society helps to raise the issue’s profile. He also directly engages with platforms, like Facebook and Google, to reinstate content inadvertently removed due to overzealous content moderation policies by cross-referencing with content he has archived in the Mnemonic technical infrastructure, thereby improving their awareness regarding content moderation policies. So far, 650,000 formerly removed videos documenting human rights violations have been reinstated. A close collaboration with YouTube led them to improve internal preservation processes that could be useful for human rights groups and Facebook announced to create an oversight board with independent experts to help monitor content moderation.

The second strategic pillar consists of strengthening the ecosystem of human rights defenders and journalists using open-source data to advance social justice. Once exhaustive evidence is secured, Hadi recognizes the establishment of responsible data practices and knowledge as a core skill for civil society leaders. Through training, Hadi equips and empowers human rights groups on the ground to use archival and open-source investigative tools and techniques. The strategic aim is twofold: 1) widen the group of people working on the material leading to faster discovery of important content, in order to 2) produce databases and create high-impact open-source investigations to support short and long-term advocacy and accountability efforts.

To scale best practices beyond a few selected experts within the open-source investigative community, Hadi develops collaborative partnership models that bring together legal groups, journalists, and human rights defenders to work on building legal cases and conduct joint investigations. Mnemonic uses its unique position of being embedded in the human rights documentation community as well as in the technology and human rights community to foster multi-sectoral cooperation, thereby setting new standards for the use of open-source data in human rights investigation. Partnering with international media agencies allows him to jointly publish investigative stories, while expanding the use of open-source techniques beyond the human rights field. Through partnerships with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Global Public Policy Initiative, Open Society Justice Initiative, and others, they are learning more about the approach and methodology, while directly using Mnemonics databases for criminal case building and reporting. The OPCW is using this content in its reports to member states. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria uses this content for annual reports on Syrian human rights situation. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International use this content for their advocacy work.

Since 2014, Hadi has been leading the field in the use of open-source data, having significant impact on the field. Thanks to the reliable and continuous delivery of high-quality evidentiary basis of human rights violations, Hadi is able to shift the standard practice of human rights-fact finding to include open-source information. Mnemonic’s Syrian Archive project is one of the few civil society groups to provide documentation on an ongoing basis to the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, which is using this content to prepare legal cases in European jurisdiction. While most of these cases are still awaiting trial, Hadi has already been able to push for the first ever criminal complaint filed in relation to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Through 1) establishing the first publicly available database of open-source content documenting chemical weapon attacks in Syria between 2012 and 2018, and 2) leading a coalition of three other civil society groups for investigating details of these attacks, groundbreaking legal proceedings were achieved. The investigation resulted in the conviction of three Belgian firms for violating European Union sanctions by shipping chemicals to Syria, an internal audit of the Belgian customs system, several parliamentary inquiries in multiple countries, a change in Swiss export laws to reflect European Union sanctions laws on specific chemicals, and the opening of additional investigations in Germany and the Netherlands related to shipments of chemicals directly or indirectly to Syria.

With the archives, the data is now used to create publicly accessible datasets which offer a narrative based off digital memory: ground-up accounts and content of Syrian, Yemenis, and Sudanese citizens. Hadi is also attempting to use these archives as a basis for innovative analyses around patterns of the information stored to identify driving forces in similar conflicts – a powerful lever for prevention and early-stage intervention in future conflicts.

Hadi’s work has further inspired, at least in part, a major mindset shift within the United Nations: in 2016, the United Nations General Assembly took a historic step in establishing a Mechanism to investigate and preserve digital evidence of international crimes in Syria, the first time the Assembly has established such a body. At this point, Hadi has already achieved strong reputation for his pioneering work on this topic, which is why he has been invited as a consultant and partner to actively accompany the establishment of the UN department from day one.

Now that there is a thorough proof of concept for the human rights field, Hadi concentrates on scaling the support formats to be deployed by other organizations and formalize the rapid response initiative to securely preserve documentation from Iran, Chile, and Hong Kong and other contexts. Maintaining and developing close conversations with social media platforms and governments related to content moderation will continue to be strategic priority in terms of securing long-term preservation of digital information. In partnership with universities, Hadi is also currently developing a new methodology to formalize the annotation processes of open-source investigation to increase its usefulness for journalists and media houses. Alongside this, Mnemonic seeks to increase access to work through producing open-source training guides and resources of the skills and processes it has developed, as well as translations of materials and tools into English and Arabic.

The Person

“Watch out, even walls might have ears!” is a warning that Hadi grew up with. After experiencing the massacre of Hama in 1982, his family moved to Damascus and avoided speaking about what happened or why. This underlying spirit of not being able to speak up and wondering about what happened has influenced all the steps in Hadi’s path towards building Mnemonic. Without much passion Hadi studied economics at university. At the age of 19, a big wave of immigrants from Iraq came to Syria and Hadi became neighbors with several immigrants. There he realized that there was still so much to do regarding humanitarian services in his country. He began volunteering Doctors without Borders which became a game changer that sparked his self-efficacy in supporting causes for a greater good. As soon as the first NGO was founded in Syria in 2007, he took over an active role and built community centers with refugees from Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries. This was when he began to grow his expertise in human rights, humanitarian work, and community organizing. Aware of the corrupt practices and human rights violations of Syria’s military, Hadi moved to the neighboring country Jordan in 2010 to avoid the compulsory 2.5 years of military service. Despite his plans, he never returned; instead, he followed the human rights defender organization he had started to work with in Jordan to Berlin. There he dove deeper into the field of documenting and preserving information to bolster the human rights movement. What started as voluntary work in a room in Aman soon became the Syrian Archive – with the clear potential to establish an infrastructure that could be used and scaled in multiple contexts, setting new standards for the field. Driven by the vision of creating professional spaces for all people to speak up and have a voice, Hadi keeps pursuing his work even though the context is hostile and threatening.