What is Bellingcat's Justice and Accountability Unit?
15 December 2022
The Justice and Accountability Unit (J&A Unit) is a joint Bellingcat and Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) initiative whose mission is to demonstrate the viability of online open source information in judicial processes.
The J&A Unit is a separate unit from the rest of Bellingcat which conducts investigations into potential atrocity crimes, and follows a rigorous methodology it has developed to meet evidentiary standards. The Unit was officially established in March 2022, but this project has been in the works since 2018 (see background below).
The J&A Unit is “firewalled” from the rest of the organisation — it has its own communication networks and those at Bellingcat who work on J&A projects cannot work on the public-facing research or investigative side of the organisation on the same topics. For example, in order to mitigate real or perceived bias, investigators in the J&A Unit working on the Ukraine Project, are not the same as those writing public articles or developing tech tools that can be used when covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Investigations by the Unit are not published publicly, but intended for use by domestic or international accountability processes.
However, the Unit has made its methodology publicly available.
Since Bellingcat launched in 2014, it has had an ongoing interest in contributing towards justice and accountability efforts. Bellingcat has since provided training to accountability institutions, working with investigative bodies such as the Joint Investigative Team (JIT) on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. In 2018, Bellingcat researchers met GLAN (Global Legal Action Network) at an Expert Workshop hosted by GLAN, Swansea University and Garden Court Chambers, to consider the potential for digital evidence to be used in the fight for accountability for atrocities in Yemen.
The work that contributed to this methodology began shortly afterwards when lawyers at GLAN undertook a review of evidentiary principles in consultation with investigators at Bellingcat. At the same time, it was hoped that a set of simple steps, which investigators could take to comply with those principles, could be developed. This resulted in the drafting of the first version of a methodology that aimed to strike a balance between being practical as well as robust.
- 2019: To test the investigative workability of the methodology, GLAN and Bellingcat convened an interdisciplinary “Hackathon” event at which world-renowned open source investigators from many different organisations trialed the methodology to investigate alleged airstrikes in Yemen. The results of these investigations were subsequently published as the Yemen Project.
- 2020: GLAN and Bellingcat continued to revise the methodology while conducting further investigations into attacks causing grave civilian harm in Yemen. A project at Harvard University’s Advocates for Human Rights led by GLAN’s Dr Ioannis Kalpouzos scrutinised the Yemen Project investigations for their significance in assessing international humanitarian law compliance.
- 2021: To test the evidentiary aspects of the methodology, the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University, GLAN and Bellingcat designed and convened a mock hearing challenging the admissibility of a piece of open source evidence discovered using the methodology. The purpose of this exercise was to have the methodology scrutinised and challenged in as realistic a way possible in the context of the courts of England and Wales. The draft methodology was then revised again to address the issues raised by the exercise.
- 2022: The methodology was finalised into its current form, and together GLAN and Bellingcat launched the Justice and Accountability Unit which uses the methodology to conduct online open-source investigations on Ukraine. We also released two reports addressing the use of open source investigations as evidence in legal proceedings.
Everyone on our team receives a legal briefing upon joining which covers the core evidentiary principles of which they need to be aware, alongside the substantive law applicable to the situation they are investigating — for the current project, this includes international humanitarian law and international criminal law.
Our team is composed of:
- 1 Lead Investigator
- 8 Investigators
- 2 Senior Lawyers
- 1 Legal Officer
- 1 Data Scientist
- 1 Digital Archivist
Among the eight investigators’ competencies are native Russian and Ukrainian language skills.
Our J&A Methodology
Our latest iteration of the methodology was finalised on 15 December 2022. A previous version was tested in the aforementioned 2021 mock hearing. This hearing, alongside input from a number of legal practitioners and investigators, allowed the senior lawyers within the J&A Unit to update the existing methodology and included practical examples relevant to the Ukrainian context. The revised methodology then underwent a final review by an Independent External Review Panel made up of six experienced international lawyers with backgrounds in international prosecution, defence, and digital evidence usage. We decided to publish the methodology in case it could be useful to other organisations.
The methodology should be thought of as a set of standard operating procedures which provide granular, practical details for investigators. It is therefore not an alternative to the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations, which sets out high-level guidance on the effective use of open source information as evidence. In any case, the Berkeley Protocol also makes clear that anyone wishing to take it into account will need to develop standard operating procedures that implement the principles articulated by the Protocol. Bellingcat’s first J&A methodology was reviewed after the Berkeley Protocol’s publication in 2020, with whose principles we consider our methodology to comply.
You can find our latest methodology here.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, GLAN and Bellingcat launched a set of investigations into alleged atrocity crimes taking place there. These investigations follow the methodology and their findings will be made available to any national or international prosecutors who are gathering evidence of such alleged crimes. The evidence will be arranged in an analytical database powered by Uwazi, an open source application, which can be searched and filtered. The content discovered during these investigations will be preserved by Mnemonic, an independent third-party organisation maintaining an archive of digital content from Ukraine, as it has done for Syria, Yemen and Sudan.
Our open source project began as part of our organisations’ commitment to documenting aerial attacks causing grave civilian harm in Yemen by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition.
Drawing on Bellingcat’s investigations into airstrikes in Yemen, GLAN has analysed the contribution made by online open source information where an assessment of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) is required. This study, conducted in conjunction with Dr Ioannis Kalpouzos of GLAN’s Legal Action Committee, can be found in the aforementioned reports above. For more on our work in relation to open source information and Yemen, see our Yemen case page. Note: this project precedes the work and updated methodology used for the Ukraine project, but served as its basis.
If you have any further questions about Bellingcat’s J&A Unit, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org