The Forensics of Human Rights – An Interview with Eyal Weizman

The Forensics of Human Rights – An Interview with Eyal Weizman 900 450 HM-Berlin

Photo © David Ausserhofer / Robert Bosch Academy

The Forensics of Human Rights – An Interview with Eyal Weizman

Date published: 07.04.2021

The walls are closing in on civil society in Europe and globally. Human rights violations are part of the day-to-day life of many citizens. These regressions of fundamental rights and attacks on civil society increasingly diminish the democratic space for activism and threaten the safety of its defenders. In this interview series, Hafiza Merkezi Berlin wants to highlight the struggles for human rights and against the shrinking civil space by interviewing the people on the frontlines. In these national and transnational cases, we find patterns of attacks, but also examples of local, national, and transnational solidarity that empowers and equips civil society in the struggle.
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In recent years, we have witnessed the establishment of numerous human rights organizations that take an interdisciplinary approach, combining the disciplines of i.a. forensics, data processing as well as law and have thus successfully obtained numerous investigations and indictments worldwide. One of them is the organisation Forensic Architecture (FA). The research agency is based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and investigates human rights violations including violence committed by states, police forces, militaries, and corporations. It works in partnership with institutions across civil society, from grassroots activists, to legal teams, to international NGOs and media organisations, to carry out investigations with and on behalf of communities and individuals affected by conflict, police brutality, border regimes and environmental violence. 

FA has recently started a Berlin-based office by the name of FORENSIS. For this,  they have partnered with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, the German magazine Der Spiegel as well as the filmmaker Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) to form the collective Investigative Commons

Christian Bergmann met with FA’s founder Eyal Weizman on behalf of Hafiza Merkezi Berlin (HMB) to discuss current trends and strategies in international human rights work.

Forensic Architecture has become a lighthouse project in the global human rights scene within a few years, not least because of its unconventional methods and instruments. With your interdisciplinary approach, you have been able to show completely new possibilities in dealing with human rights violations. How would you say your work has broadened the range of possibilities for international action by human rights organizations? 

Eyal Weizman (EW): I feel that our intervention is very different in different fields. It has a very specific intervention in the human rights context, another in the legal context and yet another in the fields of arts and culture. In human rights, the discourse practice was very testimony centric. Not only for testomological reasons,  figuring out what happened, but also for ethical ones. Because the very ethos of human rights is taking the side of the victim, being there with them against repressives states and therefore [being on the side of] the fragile voice of the witness is sometimes traumatizing to the listeners. The problem with the turn of human rights to the ethical sphere is that it left the political domain a little bit and opened the human rights field to several strains of critique of becoming some sort of quasi-religious organizations. If you like, they present as the priests of secular humanistic religion that is ethics, rather than dealing with the root causes of actions. Materiality became very important for us in forensic architectures and an entry point to making the voices of the victims heard. From here we started an opening or fork. On the one hand, working on physical facts (on settlements/colonies in the West Bank, on the location of military bases or on environmental destruction of militarized extractive policies in different places worldwide) gave us a human right basis, which provides the material ground for understanding human rights as a political issue.  At the same time, the nature of testimony is also changing. Today, a testimony is not something that is solicited by a person going into the field, traveling from the metropolitan center to some of the violent frontier of our fractured world and maybe recording or transcribing somebody’s testimony. Rather, testimonies today are given by the people experiencing violation on their terms and they are entangled with the evidence or the media. I have not seen a single video yet in which there is no speech in it. So you record something and you would curse, you would cry, you would comment upon it or you would shout to the police officer beyond your device. A phone camera records from both its ends. It records the person or the incident that the lense is aiming towards, but it also records you, the person who holds the device. And with that you have a kind of overlap of testimony and evidence at the same time. The very clear division between science, on the one hand, and the kind of humanistic approach on the other hand are basically just collapsing within the flat screen of your device. You need science in order to interpret what you see, technology in order to understand the medium (its resolution, bandwidth etc.) and to analyse in depth what is recorded on the video. But also humanities for identification, solidarity, all those things that we also aim for. Humanities and with it also artistic, critical and scientific sensibilities merge together. And that is why I think Forensic Architecture’s identification of those two phenomenons – one, the necessity to insists on the material facts within human rights analysis and political responsibility and two, identifying the changing nature of evidence – lets us intervene in a decisive way and allows other human rights groups to adopt those techniques and use them. 

A phone camera records from both its ends. It records the person or the incident that the lense is aiming towards, but it also records you, the person who holds the device. And with that you have a kind of overlap of testimony and evidence at the same time. The very clear division between science on the one hand, and the kind of humanistic approach on the other hand are basically just collapsing within the flat screen of your device.

A core characteristic of your work is the international appeal that your cases always develop. Your investigations span the globe from the Middle East, Africa, and the United States to Southeast Asia and even international waters. Most of these cases – such as the murder of the Kurdish prosecutor Tahir Elçi (2015) or the forcibly disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Mexico (2014) – are local and can initially be viewed solely in this geographic and geopolitical context. You almost always cooperate closely with local NGOs. What would you say are the chances and limits of ‘glocal’ cooperation/advocacy in our field?

EW: We are simply too small to be a clearing house human right group, like e.g. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, that would undertake an investigation. They can do it all in-house, they have the experts, they have the resources etc. . But the actual advantage of being small is that we always need to attach ourselves and become part of a network that investigates a case. We initially always have to work with the people struggling and are at the forefront of conflict or with the local NGOs that are rooted, understand the local political stakes and are close to them. Then there are other experts like journalists, or other human rights groups and at later stages it is also cultural institutions that may fund the work that we do. So what is developed is kind of a thick network and that network is a community of practice that is in itself political production. What we claim is that in order to investigate a case that is politically important you need to create a political community and that is what we call the open verification technique

In your recent public statement on the Tahir Elçi case it says/ or you write: “That our report has been cited [by the Turkish prosecution] at all is encouraging; that its central conclusion has been overlooked and manipulated, however, is of great concern.” I can imagine that this is something that you have been experiencing in other cases of yours as well. How do you deal with such politically motivated manipulation attempts? 

EW: It’s always a risk entering into court, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a place where you can extract a small measure of solace or accountability. On the other hand, you are entering into an institution that is controlled largely by the kind of main ideological framework of the state in which you operate. You need to be very careful. Things that you think are productive or progressive could actually turn around very fast. So you need to be very vigilant. Regarding the Tahir Elçi case, I believe that the prosecution has pressed charges against the police man to a large extent based on our findings, but only charged them with involuntary manslaughter. However, they have also named another suspect, one of the surviving Kurdish fighters, who was on site. You know, we have spent months working on this. The way we do it, I almost know every ankle and elbow change of that running person by heart. We were looking at that by modeling it in 3D. We were looking at every pixel around the gun to see if it was charged or not and I can categorically tell you, that the bullet that ended up in Tahir Elçi’s skull came out of a Turkish police officer’s gun. Hence, there is absolutely no ground to charge the Kurdish fighter. 

Forensic Architecture's independent investigation on the killing of Tahir Elçi on behalf of the Diyarbakır Bar Association.

Of all these cases, which are different in many respects, what would you say are the commonalities and how does that influence you in the processing of the cases? Do you follow a certain guideline for each case?

EW: There is not really a guideline. Right now, we understand that we can only do a few investigations. There is always more necessity than we have the capacity to do. We are not a human rights organisation and we do not repeat cases. We do not follow cases that we know how to do. We only do cases that we do not know how to do at the beginning and where we have to figure it out. We are also based at a university and that means that we need to effectively create new techniques and technologies and make them public to the whole world and put them in open-source channels. Then we need to ensure that our investigation could have political value in a context and we built a very big strategy. At a first meeting that we have with somebody that comes and asks for our services, we usually start off with the question of how we built up a strategy as well as of how we can include the courts, the media and the arts in order to approach the subject and call for change. 

At a first meeting that we have with somebody that comes and asks for our services, we usually start off with the question of how we built up a strategy as well as of how we can include the courts, the media and the arts in order to approach the subject and call for change.

As our HMB interview series intends to shed a spotlight on strategies of international solidarity in national and international human rights advocacy, what would you say are the most powerful instruments, especially in view of the fact that we are dealing with human rights violations in many countries that simply ignore the rule of law and human rights and do not abide by international agreements? 

EW: I think that the idea of international solidarity is absolutely crucial. One example is the investigation we have recently done to  expose the extrajudicial execution of Ahmad Erekat in Palestine. The investigation was conducted by a team in our office, mainly Palestininan-led, but with contributions by colleagues involved in Black-led (civil rights) movements worldwide. And to a certain extent, that kind of solidarity between Black-led and Palestinian-led liberation struggles resulted in this investigation and lead to Angela Davis doing  the voice-over for this work. As I say, every investigation is both an attempt to uncover some bit of truth, to build a case from a multidisciplinary approach, and to build a diffused community of practice. That community of practice is always existing across borders, which is why when we are working on a case, one team goes to bed and the other team in the other part of the world is working. So there is a construction, the idea of an investigative aesthetics and that you create a wide multiplicity of actors of diverse skills, locations and life experiences. Solidarity is the glue that holds that community together.

Every investigation is both an attempt to uncover some bit of truth, to build a case from a multidisciplinary approach, and to build a diffused community of practice. That community of practice is always existing across borders (...). So there is a construction, the idea of an investigative aesthetics and that you create a wide multiplicity of actors of diverse skills, locations and life experiences. Solidarity is the glue that holds that community together.

Finally, let’s take a look at the future of the global human rights movement. The current pandemic has also hit our field of activity hard. What challenges do you think human rights work will face in light of the global social upheaval caused by the pandemic, and what opportunities do you see?

EW: On the one hand, I think the challenge we will face is coming from digital violence and cyber-infection. We as Forensic Architecture are moving in that direction, to look at how – especially as we all sit isolated in our homes – regimes are using access to your devices to both generate violence as well as to simply manipulate your social context by publishing things on you and intervening within that domain. We are about to release an investigation on a Israeli cyber-security company called NSO Group, that sells their products to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Mexican government. As these actors have  targeted our friends, colleagues and collaborators,  it has also become of interest for us to start looking into these cyber-human rights violations. 

On the other hand, we are also dealing with environmental issues and the entanglement between environmental and human rights issues in a classical sense, like environmental destruction, or climate change having an impact on political constellations. When we are employing artificial intelligence (AI) we do two things, we use machine learning in order to help us search for objects and photographs online, but we also use our processes in order to seek accountability for the algorithms themselves, which is called introspection and that is understanding the algorithmic field of AI as a political field that is also in need of accountability. 

Eyal Weizman is the founding director of Forensic Architecture and Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a member of the Technology Advisory Board of the International Criminal Court and the Centre for Investigative Journalism. In 2019 he was elected life fellow of the British Academy and appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 New Year Honours for services to architecture. 

Christian Bergmann is a publicist & consultant based in Berlin. He writes i.a. for the German Public Radio at Deutschlandfunk Kultur. In 2015 he initiated and curated the exhibition project “77□ 13 – Political Art and Resistance in Turkey” at the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) in Berlin.

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