Documenting such crimes in conflict zones through social media has increased exponentially in recent years — citizen journalists have uploaded about one million videos to YouTube from Syria alone but most of the material is unusable legally because of verification issues.
Launched Monday by the International Bar Association, the hope is that the new eyeWitness to Atrocities app will allow videos and photographs to be used in court without the presence of the person who took them.
"We designed it by talking to the various international courts saying, 'What do you need in order to use pictorial evidence?'" said Mark Ellis, executive director of the London-based International Bar Association.
"Those videos would be absolutely irrelevant in a court of law because they would never be admitted," Ellis said from New York.
EyeWitness aims to overcome that weakness by having human rights workers, journalists or civilians in global hot spots use the app to take videos or pictures of genocide, torture or other atrocities.
The app then sends the encrypted files to a secure database set up by LexisNexis in Europe — with the location, time and other crucial data such as the presence of nearby cell towers embedded automatically.
"We can tell immediately whether the video has been doctored," Ellis said. "You can't try to change or manipulate (it). That's very crucial."
Once in the database, legal experts can view a copy of the video and decide whether to send it on to a war-crimes tribunal or commission. The original stays in the server "vault" until it is sent to investigators.
Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals, said the app could help turn ordinary people into potent witnesses.
"It would provide very important corroborative evidence of a crime that's been committed," Goldstone said from Johannesburg. "It could also have the effect of deterring these crimes being committed if the would-be criminals are aware they could be photographed."
In addition, copies of the authenticated material can also be sent to the media, which can broadcast the imagery with a high degree of confidence.
"If a media outlet has a video that has been captured through the eyeWitness app, we will be able to assist them in telling them, 'Yes, this is a true representation of what was videoed, this is when it was taken, where it was taken, and it's not been doctored," Ellis said.
Deirdre Collings, executive director of the Ottawa-based SecDev Foundation, said the app could "revolutionize" the effectiveness of ground-level human rights reporting.
The idea for the app came to Ellis him several years ago after he viewed footage of what appeared to be Sri Lankan soldiers committing gruesome crimes against civilians, he said. The problem was there was no way to tell when and where the anonymously sent video was shot, and the Colombo government immediately denounced it as fake.
Users must register the app to their phone, although personal information is not needed. As a security measure, they can quickly delete the program.
For now, the app is only available for smartphones running Google's Android system but the aim is to make it available on Apple iPhones as well.
The International Bar Association is an organization of lawyers, law firms and law societies, and runs an International Criminal Court program in The Hague.