Wendy Betts

Director | eyeWitness to Atrocities

This interview is part of an ongoing partnership between Women in Foreign Policy and The Women in Diplomacy Podcast, ran by Kelsey Suemnicht, focused on women working at the intersections of foreign policy and technology. 

Previous interviews include: 

CV in brief

17 years' experience

Education: University of the Pacific | University of San Francisco School of Law | The Johns Hopkins University - Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Career so far: Senior Program Manager at National Center for State Courts | Director - War Crimes Documentation Project at American Bar Association

Tell us about eyeWitness to Atrocities (eyeWitness).

eyeWitness to Atrocities is an initiative begun by the International Bar Association (IBA) in London. This project has developed a mobile camera application that can be used to record photos and videos of serious human rights violations. It's doing so in a way that can facilitate the use of these photos and videos in investigations and in trials, to  hold the individuals responsible accountable. The app automatically captures the information on where and when the photos and videos are taken and information to show that the file wasn't tampered with. The app records this information automatically and safeguards it so it can be used in court to authenticate the footage.

Would you have any concrete examples of how it's been used so far you could give us?

We only launched in June of 2015. We've been spending this time in outreach and dissemination, working with documenting organizations to see how the app might fit into their workflow and to help them meet their goals. We train them on using the app. This is a time-consuming process. We now have organizations that are regularly using the app, but it's a little premature to have a court use case. In particular, we're focusing on atrocity crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. That level of crime requires a substantial amount of information to be put together over time and over space to show the magnitude of violations. You have to be able to show patterns of conduct taking place over time and over geography. 

Please note that the video contains graphic images. eyeWitness seeks to bring the individuals who commit atrocities to justice by providing a tool for human rights defenders, journalists, and other courageous citizens to capture verifiable footage related to international atrocity crimes.

This sounds like a challenging space to work in. What inspired you and your team to tackle this?

The initiative began in 2011, during the rise of social media and the posting of information coming out of conflict zones and other places that were experiencing large-scale human rights violations. The executive director of the IBA was approached repeatedly to comment on the potential evidentiary value of that information. Over and over, he had to say that even though the conduct in the footage did appear to be criminal, without knowing more about where and when the footage was taken and if it had been edited in any way, there wasn't much use it could be put to towards investigations and trials.

Individuals and organizations on the ground, at great risk often, were collecting this information to raise awareness, but couldn't go any further towards holding the perpetrators accountable. At the same time, courts and investigators were seeing that this information showed potentially serious violations. Yet they were not able to use it, which is the gap we wanted to fill with the eyeWitness app.

You've got degrees from the University of the Pacific and the John Hopkins University in the US. How did your education prepare you for your current job, which mixes international relations with the law and digital?

I've taken a bit of a diverse path. My undergraduate and graduate degree were indeed in international relations. When I came out of school, I started working on development projects focused on building the rule of law in developing countries and in post-conflict zones, so I became immersed in this idea of transitional justice and the importance of holding perpetrators accountable in the wake of mass human rights violations. It's a real struggle and each country has a different approach. It was that interest in different aspects of justice and different methods of holding perpetrators accountable that led me to decide that I wanted to go to law school.

What is the biggest challenge that you face as a director of a project like this?

The biggest challenge is what makes it the most exciting. Even though the IBA is well established as an organization, the eyeWitness project is like a start-up: every aspect of it is new, developing and multifaceted. We have the marketing component, the outreach component, the policy-making component, technology, the law... The use of digital evidence is an evolving area of law. Technology is constantly changing so we need to keep abreast of those developments. 

In terms of working with the documenters on the ground, it's an extensive trust-building process. These individuals and organizations are taking great risks to collect this information, so they're cautious in the tools they use. We have extensive discussions with them over a period of time to build their trust in the app itself, in how it works, in the security of the information collected, in the anonymity of the user, and in the IBA itself as an organization, in how it might use the information, who has access to it. 

Developing the new policies, procedures, and protocols to match the evolving field has been really interesting. We've been looking at how to determine the appropriate accountability mechanisms with which to share the information we collect, at ensuring that the data sharing protocols are safeguarding privacy rights, and at other similar types of policy issues. Having a clean slate to develop these is exciting, but it's also a challenge to make sure that we're doing it appropriately, in ways that safeguards the information and the users.

You've been working on this project for over a year now. What's your key learning been and what is a thing you would have done differently or you would advise someone to do differently if they were doing something similar?

We learned we had to be a bit more flexible in our approach with how we worked with organizations. The project really arose out of the crowdsourced information collection movement, but we quickly realized that it made more sense to target organizations and individuals that were doing documentation, because they were aware of the risks involved; they understand what information to be collected, and they have a reason to be out there collecting it and to have the app on their phone. We shifted our approach to work with organizations more closely. In doing so we learnt how to better fit into their workflows. We've adapted how we handle data sharing, consent and similar aspects to make sure that we're really supporting the organizations on the ground, not just providing them a tool to use.

What makes it exciting work to be involved with?

It is really exciting work to be involved with because of the variety of the project itself, and because of the job and the oversight of the different aspects of it. It is a project that is at the nexus of law, policy, and technology. We work closely with organizations on the ground, we do human rights work, we do some reporting work, we work with the tribunals etc. A large part of the job is relationship building which means marketing, outreach, policy development, technology development. Every day is different, which keeps it really interesting and exciting.

Do you ever see bureaucracy getting in the way of progress? For readers out there who may be experiencing that feeling of being locked by a bureaucracy in their own jobs, we're curious if you have any recommendations on how to combat that.

In our project itself, because it's so small, issues of bureaucracy are not as much as you might find in larger organizations. I have worked in larger organizations where I have seen that issue. However, in our working with other organizations, we've seen times at which their bureaucracies can slow the adoption of the app or temper their approach to how they might want to incorporate it into their work or endorse it.

It's useful to determine what the bottom line concern is behind what seemed to be bureaucratic rules, because often the bureaucracy serves as a good check and balance, especially when you're looking at new and evolving areas. It helps you to stop and think through what the implications of what this new approach might be. Once you have established the bottom line concern, see if there's a way to incorporate whatever new approach you're proposing, while still addressing it. It may not meet the rule on its face, but if you can justify how it protects whatever that rules intends to protect. Then you might be able to get some traction.

Another approach that's actually quite successful is if you can find a champion within the organization: if you're working with another organization, find a champion there to support and push the change, or find someone in your own organization who might have a bit more leverage to support and push the desired change, and maybe even just on a pilot scale. Often organizations may not want to adopt something new organization-wide, but you can convince the powers in charge that trying it on a pilot scale will be a less threatening way to go about it.

Do you have any general career advice for young women out there who are interested in pursuing a similar career path?

For anyone interested in a career in international relations, the key is to be flexible. Even if you find an opportunity that may not be in the issue area you think you're most interested in, the experience and skills that you can learn are often transferable across different issue areas. You may be surprised at finding interests that you didn't realize that you had. The great thing about international relations is that there's no right or wrong career path, all opportunities can add value, which opens you up to take more risks than you may otherwise be willing to take in a more straightforward career path.

The willingness to try new things is really helpful in this particular field, as is field experience. If you have the opportunity and the means to go overseas, maybe show up in-country, offer to volunteer, whatever it takes. I think that's an incredibly useful skillset that employers highly value.

What are your hopes for how digital can change foreign policy?

I think we've seen that the rise in technology and in digital tools have really helped raise awareness of world issues. That's been a positive move forward, and the continuation of the use of technology tools in this field really can help push foreign policy engagement. With the rise of social media and citizen journalists and the use of smartphones to share information, we've seen that regimes in power can't as easily deny human rights violations anymore. Social media forces a different foreign policy conversation.

We see the use of technology to continue that trend so that we no longer stop the discussion at denials, but move to greater engagement. It may not lead to change right away, but at least there's greater foreign policy and discussion around issues that are happening. The more and more people have access to technology, have access to the internet, and to information, really changes the playing field.

How can we keep in touch with what you do, both sort of maybe personally and professionally?

The best way to keep tabs on how the project is developing is through our social media sites - you can follow us on Twitter. We regularly make announcements about new developments in the project, upcoming changes to the app and new materials we have available. We also  say a bit about the regions where we've been working. We generally don't mention countries or specific organizations. We also have a Facebook page.

For me personally, I'm always happy to respond to questions. You can find contact information through the project website and through LinkedIn