Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ronald Niezen's "#HumanRights"

Ronald Niezen is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Faculty of Law at McGill University. He held the Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy in the faculties of Law and of Arts between 2013 and 2020, and is a former Chair of the Department of Anthropology.

Niezen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, #HumanRights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Based in a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, SITU Research’s staff profiles include architects, urban planners, tech experts, designers, policy experts, and a dog, Lola, listed as the director of office culture. SITU’s clients include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and an international scattering of law schools. Brad Samuels, founding partner of SITU, described to me the insight that he and three colleagues had upon their graduation from the Cooper Union that led to SITU’s founding in 2005: They could expand the scope of their work as architects by doing spatial analysis of past events in addition to the usual future-oriented prospective design of urban space.

This was the moment of inspiration that eventually led to SITU’s participation (together with Forensic Architecture) in the 2009 investigation and trial following the death of thirty-year-old Bassem Abu-Rahma, a Palestinian man killed by a tear gas canister during a peaceful protest in the West Bank village of Bil’In. This marked the first time that one of SITU’s research products was presented in court (in this case, an Israeli military tribunal). At the request of attorney Michael Sfard and the human rights organization B’Tselem, SITU created a reconstruction based on civilian video footage, showing conclusively that the tear gas canister that struck Abu-Rahma in the chest was fired at close quarters directly at the protester (rather than at the 60-degree minimum angle mandated by the Open Fire Regulations for indirect fire). For the purposes of the military tribunal, SITU and Forensic Architecture developed a “parametric tool” that “allowed key variables in the ballistic equation to be easily modified, updated and visualized,” offering conclusive evidence that the gas canister could not have been fired at an angle of 60 degrees or more. Despite this evidence, the case was summarily closed by Major General Danni Efroni after a delay of three years after the trial.
Page 99 of #HumanRights describes a key moment in the development of open source investigations--which make use of information openly available to anyone online--as a forensic tool. The case depicted on this page resonates today in the context of worldwide protests centered on racial injustice, police brutality, and political oppression. In 2009, Palestinian protester, Bassem Abu-Rahma, was killed by a gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank. The smartphone videos made by fellow protestors became crucial evidence in what became one of the first open source investigations used in court and subjected to cross examination.

SITU Research, an architectural firm based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Forensic Architecture, based in Goldsmith’s, University of London, developed an analytical tool that processed this video footage demonstrating (most importantly) the distance from which the canister was fired and its trajectory before it killed Abu-Rahma. This analysis revealed that the solider fired the canister too close to the protesters, violating the requirement of a sixty degree minimum angle.

The outcome of the case also resonates with injustices that we see today: Major General Danni Efroni of the Israel Defense Forces summarily closed the case after a three-year delay. This points to the circumstances that many will recognize--in which states are able to control judicial process and circumvent direct forms of accountability. This event also points to the digitally-thick environment of the contests between human rights advocates and the forces that oppose them. Going beyond page 99, we find that this contest takes the form of a digital arms race, not between states engaged in espionage and cyber-warfare (though that is happening too), but between, on the one hand, those using social media mobilizations and advanced analytics to collect and authenticate digital data, protect witnesses, and promote justice claims and those, on the other hand, who are developing digital tools of surveillance and disinformation in the interest of authoritarian rule. Page 99 illustrates the complex interplay of emancipatory possibility and political domination in the newest era of human rights.
Learn more about #HumanRights at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue