HRC and U.N. Human Rights launch Berkeley Protocol

Berkeley Human Rights Center and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights co-launch global guidelines on investigating human rights violations online

On February 13, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk joined the Human Rights Center to officially launch the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations, the world’s first international guidelines on how to use social media and content found online when investigating war crimes and human rights violations. First released in English in December 2020, the Protocol has now been translated into Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, and Russian.

“It’s extremely important that we have good standards that apply to the type of evidence that is gathered [and] collected so that it can be used for criminal accountability mechanisms,” Türk said of the Berkeley Protocol, citing its use both within his office and on teams conducting U.N. Fact-Finding Missions and Commissions of Inquiry.

Four people sit on a stage.

(L-R) Albert Samaha, Volker Türk, Alexa Koenig, and Eric Stover.

HRC Co-Faculty Directors Alexa Koenig and Eric Stover joined High Commissioner Türk for the event, held at Berkeley Law’s Booth Auditorium and moderated by Albert Samaha, an award-winning investigative journalist at the Washington Post.

“It’s fantastic that we can do this work and the Berkeley Protocol is a real visible example of that cooperation [between the UN OHCHR and HRC],” Türk said. “For instance, the Fact-Finding Mission on Iran does not have access to Iran. So as a result, this type of analysis is extremely important.”

During the event, HRC Co-Faculty Director and Investigations Director Alexa Koenig presented an HRC investigation feeding into the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Iran about the intentional blinding of Iranian protesters by Iranian security forces. It was the first public announcement of the investigation, conducted in partnership with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project; the Azadi Archive; Mnemonic; UCLA’s Promise Institute for Human Rights; Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps; and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. It is hoped that the project will help push forward the Mission’s renewal of its mandate investigating this violence, as it is currently set to expire at the end of March.

A woman speaks into a microphone and looks down at a notecard. Behind her, images of people with eyepatches are projected in a collage.

Alexa Koenig presents on the Iran investigation, with images of protesters behind her.

“One year is not enough time to thoroughly investigate these injuries, the abuses perpetrated against thousands of people who are fighting for women, for life, and for freedom,” Koenig said in an echo of the rallying slogan that has become eponymous with the protests.

Undergraduate students involved in the Center’s Investigations Lab contributed to the investigation through identification of particular blinding incidents, and verification of video. In the first 20 days of the investigation, they identified nearly 200 victims of blinding incidents. Berkeley Law students and HRC staff and affiliates have also been involved in preparing a legal analysis of the crime against humanity of gender persecution in relation to the investigation.

The Berkeley Protocol is one of several global protocols outlining guidelines for human rights practitioners to follow in order to help lawyers and judges better understand how to evaluate new investigative techniques, and guide first responders and civil society groups on how to collect information in a manner consistent with legal requirements. The Human Rights Center has also advised the UN on the development of methods and procedures for investigating torture (the Istanbul Protocol), extrajudicial executions (the Minnesota Protocol), and sexual violence in conflict (International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict).

“It’s the blueprint method,” said Co-Faculty Director Eric Stover on the importance of developing standards of practice and making them widely accessible and available through trainings and partnerships. “That’s what we’re doing with the Berkeley Protocol. We want to train students, and we especially want to go out and train local organizations to learn these procedures and to do [digital investigations] in an effective, ethical way.”

The Berkeley Protocol launch also kicked-off a year-long series of events and initiatives celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Human Rights Center. Commissioner Türk acknowledged the milestone in his speech, calling the organization “an amazing Center that really has inspired so many human rights activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and people around the world.”