STORY IN FOCUS – INTERVIEW WITH NICK WATERS, SENIOR INVESTIGATOR FOR BELLINGCAT
Q1: Can you please explain what Bellingcat’s mission is?
Bellingcat aims to identify, verify and amplify open source information regarding events around the world.
Q2: Since 2019 you have conducted investigations into violations in Yemen, principally looking at airstrikes, including strikes on markets. Could you outline some of that work, both in terms of your methodology and findings?
The Yemen Project aimed to build a methodology for collecting, preserving and analysing open source information in a way that would later be useful in court.
This generally took the form of user generated content from individuals who had filmed or photographed events and then posted that content to social media. The project started with a hackathon in early 2019, followed by writing a series of reports on SLC airstrikes in Yemen.
We eventually published 21 incidents which we identified as airstrikes in which grave civilian harm had been caused. The incidents which fit the necessary criteria were then submitted to the UK Parliamentary Committees on Arms Export Controls to demonstrate that there was a clear risk of British weapons being used in breach of International Humanitarian Law.
Work from these reports was later used as the basis for a mock hearing, which tested whether information of this kind could be submitted and accepted as evidence to a court in England. Presided over by Judge Joanna Korner, the prosecution and defence were represented by distinguished QC’s and argued whether this information could be accepted as evidence. Ultimately Judge Korner ruled that it could. Although only a mock hearing with no weight in law, the hearing provided valuable lessons about to what extent this kind of information can be used in an accountability and justice setting.
Q3: How has your military background in the UK British Army helped or hindered your role with Bellingcat?
In terms of skills, a lot of what I learned in the army is directly relevant to the work I do now. Geolocation is, after all, simply map-reading with a few extra steps. Knowledge such as the effects of weapons, and what a weapon system may look like is also extremely useful when researching conflict in this way.
Additionally, I would say the training I received, and which I delivered to my soldiers, affected the way in which I perceive the application of force. From what I have seen there appears to be widespread misunderstanding of what the application of military force actually looks like. In some limited cases it is indeed possible to limit or even entirely prevent civilians being killed in conflict, but for the most part, even with smart munitions, this is simply not possible. For example, the UK MoD’s claim to have only killed a single civilian in its air campaign against the Islamic State is, to be frank, absurd. Although this air campaign may be justified in terms of defeating the Islamic State, it is not possible for policy makers or the general public to make informed decisions about conflict when they are making those decisions based on information that is clearly false. An understanding of what the application of military force actually looks like, as well as dedicated investigations by groups such as Airwars, can help to shed some light to what this actually looks like in reality.
Q4: Can you further elaborate on the importance of open-source analytical and fact-finding journalism — especially in relation to the conflict occurring in Yemen? How do you think this differs from “official” types of investigation?
Most people today have access to the internet and smartphones of some kind and will frequently record and share with their networks events that happen around them. Although there’s certainly a note of voyeurism there, much of this behavior is driven by the desire to bear witness to events and inform others of what’s happening around them.
The result is that, for most extreme events in the physical world, there is a corresponding echo in the digital world. That echo is the basis for what is essentially an ephemeral memory of specific events, preserved in images, videos and text posts made on social media. In our view it is vital that this information is preserved and then used to investigate events such as atrocities.
The most effective form of investigation is when traditional journalism can be combined with this echo, creating a hybrid investigation, which can give a much fuller understanding of an event, than only one or the other.
Q5: You recently provided invaluable and almost immediate help to Global Rights Compliance in our forthcoming joint investigative report on starvation crimes in Yemen with Mwatana for Human Rights. You helped to identify whether there were any military targets nearby using satellite imagery and analysis of datasets. Could you unpack how you go about requests for assistance such as this and the methodology you use to arrive at certain conclusions?
We usually receive a large number of requests for work similar to this, much of it pro-bono. As such we’re only able to fulfil a small number of them, and so we usually chose those we believe we could add value to, and which are for a worthwhile cause.
The actual methodology we use is based on the problem at hand – in this case, we examined the context around certain incidents, searched for additional details on social media, and cross referenced against satellite imagery. Although this wouldn’t necessarily let us identify if, for example, a military vehicle had been present, it did allow us to examine locations for evidence of fortifications or checkpoints indicating a sustained military presence.
It was a pleasure to help Global Rights Compliance with this report, and we hope it will form a basis of how we could work together in the future!
Q6: Attacks on what are known as objects indispensable to survival have over the last four years become an increasing method of warfare across a range of conflicts, attacks on farms, markets, water facilities, and food producing industries, to name just a few. Has Bellingcat come across these tactics and if so, what are your observations?
We came across such attacks frequently in our work in both Yemen and Syria. These attacks, such as those on isolated water facilities where there is clearly no military target, make it far more difficult for a population to survive as well as directly and significantly degrading the quality of life of those civilians who cannot seek shelter elsewhere.
Attacking objects indispensable to the civilian population in this way is a cynical tactic which disproportionately affects civilians and is a breach of International Humanitarian Law.
Q7: Bellingcat has been at the forefront of combatting disinformation. What, if any, disinformation have you encountered in relation to your work on Yemen?
During our work investigating strikes we did come across dis- and mis-information, but much of it was relatively crude in relation to what we’ve seen elsewhere.
For example, in relation to the SLC airstrike in August 2018, which killed many school children on a bus in Dahyan, Colonel Maliki, the SLC military spokesman, stated that “No, this is not children in the bus.” This was easily disproved by footage taken by news outlets, witnesses and the victims themselves.
I suspect there was far more of this kind of disinformation within Arabic-language channels, but since we were not the target group it didn’t overly affect us, to our knowledge.
Q8: What sort of outcomes would you like to see in relation to your investigations in Yemen and what more can be done collectively from organisations like GRC and Bellingcat to achieve this?
We already know that this kind of information can be both admissible and useful in national and international courts, such as the International Criminal Court. What we want to do is help transform the digital echo of these events into information, which can then be used to hold powerful entities to account. Work done by organisations such as Global Rights Compliance, Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen Archive, Global Legal Action Network and Campaign Against Arms Trade, is vital for this, and we hope to be able to help them on this matter.
Although we’ve focused on the legal aspect of this project, we also recognise that justice and accountability does not always have to take place in a legal setting. As such we hope that the work we do in collecting and investigating these attacks may also have application in transitional justice, forming an objective truth that could form the basis of a lasting peace.