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Digital Fact-Finding Without Borders: Transnational Advocacy in the 21st Century

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All are welcome to a talk, followed by a drinks reception

In this paper Livingston argues that in documenting violations of broadly shared norms, contemporary human rights advocacy organizations rely on three often imbricated digital affordances—capabilities that are realized by the design of a technology. High-resolution remote sensing satellites and geographical information systems create geospatial affordances that allow for panoptic surveillance by nonstate actors; digital network affordances allow for the collection and analysis of data on digital networks, such as social media and purpose-built software and websites; and forensic affordances allow for the collection and analysis of otherwise illegible physical evidence.

These ideas are used to update a core concept of international relations Constructivist scholarship, generally, and transnational advocacy theory, specifically. According to Keck and Sikkink, at the core of transnational advocacy networks (TANs) is the “production, exchange, and strategic use of information.” To rectify abusive practices, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) exchange information and services with larger and more prominent international NGOs (INGOs). In turn, ING Os enlist other powerful allies to join in pressuring on an abusive state into closer compliance with broadly shared international norms.

Norms propagation and enforcement of this sort are important to governance of the international system. Keck and Sikkink refer to this as the boomerang model after its orbicular flow of information. Information exchange assumes a relatively benign environment where local and international human rights investigators enjoy direct physical access to the site of the alleged abuse and to one another. Yet unstable and violent conditions often place international investigators and their local counterparts at grave risk, making access impossible. Even where access is allowed, the destruction of physical evidence constitutes a serious encumbrance to information gathering. Where the repression of local populations is severe, access by external investigators unlikely, and the retrieval of physical evidence improbable, standard models of information exchange are problematic. In these circumstances, information exchange facilitated by often imbricated digital technologies fills some of the void. Even where access is allowed, data collected by digital technologies often corroborates (or not) data gathered by conventional fact-finding missions.

In this way, Livingston updates information exchange to the digital age. Secondly, because digitally-enabled fact-finding by ING Os and TANS erodes the control of knowledge of the affairs within a state’s recognized borders, countermeasures have emerged in recent years. Time permitting, Livingston will also describe the methods and strategies used by abusive states to push-back on digitally-enabled fact-finding missions. This typically involves information campaigns designed to undermine the authority and credibility of the organizations and even individuals associated with war crimes and abuse documentary on efforts.

Our Speaker:

Steven Livingston studies the role of advanced technology in governance and the provisioning of public goods, including human security and rights. He is working on a book and several articles about human rights organization use of commercial remote sensing satellites, DNA sequencing technology, and digital networks. Human rights groups use these technologies in their fact-finding and monitoring initiatives. His past work examined the use of mobile phones and digital mapping technologies by NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs) in “areas of limited statehood”, places where the state fails to provide basic services. Using these technologies, NGOs and CBOs leverage mobilizing efficiencies of digital platforms to fill in some of the governance void. At George Washington University, he is Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs with appointments in the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) and the Elliott School of International Affairs (ESIA). He is also a faculty associate of the Space Policy Institute at GW. He is also a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. In 2016, he was also a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution and in spring 2017 a visiting professor at St. Gallen University, Switzerland. He also serves on the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This talk is part of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights Events series.

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