Bellingcat’s report on MH17 shows citizens can and will do intelligence work



Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives.
Tim de Groot/Unsplash

Tim van Gelder, University of Melbourne

Amid the news last week that the perpetrators responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) will be put to trial next March, a report was released identifying further suspects responsible for escorting the missile to and from the launch site.

Who were the investigators behind the report? The CIA? MI6? No. It was Bellingcat, a large group of mostly volunteers working from laptops using only information available to anyone with an internet connection.

In February, Bellingcat also identified a third suspect alleged to have been involved in the poisoning of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom last year.

Bellingcat describes itself as citizen journalists, but its activities illustrate a growing phenomenon my colleagues and I call “citizen intelligence.” This is work that would count as intelligence gathering or analysis within an intelligence organisation, but it’s undertaken by citizens operating outside the traditional intelligence ecosystem.




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The rise of citizen intelligence

Citizen intelligence has been made possible by the internet in various ways.

Since its advent, we’ve seen an explosion of “open source” information. That is, data that’s accessible without any special organisational privileges. For example, just by opening Google Earth you can view satellite data of the kind only available to analysts in government agencies not many years ago.

There are now free new tools for gathering and analysing these vast troves of information, such as the analysis platform Maltego. Aspiring citizen analysts can now train themselves using resources available online or in workshops offered by various organisations.

Expertise in intelligence work is no longer the preserve of those hired and trained by traditional organisations. Powerful collaboration platforms, such as Google Docs, allow interested individuals to work effectively together, even when scattered around the world.

It could get even bigger

We’ve all seen how global, cloud-based marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have transformed their respective domains. Citizen intelligence could grow even faster if a suitable marketplace is developed. At the SWARM Project, we’ve begun exploring the potential design of a platform where those seeking intelligence can transact with those willing to provide it.

What might that look like? A marketplace for citizen intelligence could be built on a “sponsored challenge” crowdsourcing model.

Imagine an organisation with an intelligence question. Say, for example, the organisation wants to identify potential threats to a proposed infrastructure development in an unstable region. The organisation pays to have the question posed as a challenge on the platform, with a prize for the best answer. Groups of citizen analysts self-organize and submit reports. When the deadline is up, the best report garners the prize – and bragging rights.




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Why crowdsourced citizen intelligence could be effective

There are reasons to think that crowdsourced citizen intelligence could match, or outperform, traditional intelligence organisations on some kinds of tasks. Traditional organisations have advantages, such as access to classified information and highly trained analysts, but crowdsourcing has compensating strengths.

Scale

Many intelligence organisations are small and under-resourced for the number and complexity of issues they are supposed to handle. Crowdsourced intelligence can potentially draw from much larger pools of citizens. For example, the analytics crowdsourcing platform Kaggle has over a million people signed up, and it gets literally thousands of teams competing on big challenges.

Diversity

With scale comes diversity. Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives. A question like the one in the example above might require fluency in an obscure dialect, or specific technical know-how. No intelligence agency can maintain in-house everything it might need for any problem.

Agility

Crowds can be more agile than agencies, which are risk-averse bureaucracies. For example, individuals can more quickly access and use many of the latest analytical methods and tools.

Passion

Perhaps most importantly, intelligence work by unpaid volunteers is driven primarily by passion. Passion certainly exists within agencies, but is often stifled in various ways.




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The SWARM Project ran a tournament-style experiment in 2018 that illustrated how everyday citizens can sometimes beat the professionals. Teams tackled four tough, fictional intelligence problems over four weeks. Some teams were made up of analysts provided by organisations with intelligence functions, some of analysts recruited via Facebook, and some of citizens (non-analysts) recruited via Facebook.

On average, the citizen teams outperformed the professional analysts – and some of the citizen reports were astonishingly good.

How this could affect the intelligence industry

Citizen intelligence will likely create some headaches for intelligence agencies. For example decision makers might increasingly look to citizen sources over formal intelligence agencies – particularly where citizen intelligence delivers reports more quickly, or with more “convenient” findings.

On the other hand, citizen intelligence could have a lot to offer intelligence organisations. A suitably designed marketplace might enable the traditional agencies to take advantage of the power inherent in the crowd. Such a platform could be a “force multiplier”, at least for certain aspects of intelligence.

In view of these potential threats and opportunities, the Australian intelligence community should get on the front foot, shaping the future of citizen intelligence rather than just reacting to it.


This is a condensed version of a presentation given at the Technology Surprise Forum, Safeguarding Australia Summit, Canberra May 2019The Conversation

Tim van Gelder, Enterprise Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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MH17 charges: who the suspects are, what they’re charged with, and what happens next


Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Four men – three Russians and one Ukrainian – will be charged in relation to the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board.

Dutch prosecutors will launch a criminal trial in The Hague on March 9, 2020. But the accused are beyond the jurisdiction of the court, and will most likely be tried in absentia. This means the accused will not be physically present in the court room.

The prosecutors argue the four accused were jointly responsible for obtaining a BUK TELAR missile launcher (a launcher for self-propelled, surface-to-air missiles allegedly owned by the Russian military) in the city of Kursk, and launching it from Ukraine.

They say the four men are responsible for the atrocity because they had the intention to shoot down an aircraft, and obtained the missile launcher for that purpose.




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While investigators have not accused any suspects of actually firing the missile, they say in future they may identify others with that responsibility.

For the victims and their loved ones, these Dutch criminal trials present the best hope of legal acknowledgement for the tragedy.

The MH17 atrocity

On July 17, 2014, flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine.

The Joint Investigative Team (JIT), led by Dutch authorities and comprising investigators from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2016 that the flight was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.

The JIT identified the launch location as a field in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was in territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.

The countries central to the investigation – including Australia, which lost 38 people – and the victims’ families have explored a range of legal strategies to assign blame for the attack.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop initially proposed a war crimes trial for MH17, but this was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council.

Some civil claims on behalf of victims’ families are ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights.

And hearings are ongoing before the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine seeks to make a case against Russia. Ukraine cites the MH17 atrocity as characteristic of broader Russian aggression and lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.

Russia’s response

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected this week’s announcement, in line with its earlier rejections of the JIT conclusions. It said:

Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier called the crash a “terrible tragedy”, but said Russia bore no responsibility for it.

Russian officials have claimed they were prepared to assist the investigation but had been “frozen out” of it.

Who are the accused?

Three of the four accused are Russian nationals, believed to be living in Russia.

Igor Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian security service. At the time of the atrocity, Girkin was the minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region of Ukraine.

The other two Russian accused, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, are former Russian military intelligence agents who worked under Girkin.

Leonid Kharchenko is the only Ukrainian national accused. Investigators are not certain of his current location. At the time of the atrocity, Kharchenko led a separatist combat unit.

The specific charges in relation to the four named suspects will be:

  1. Causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, punishable pursuant to Article 168 of the Dutch Criminal Code

  2. The murder of the 298 persons on board of flight MH17, punishable pursuant to Article 289 of the Dutch Criminal Code.

The investigation is ongoing and continues to call for witnesses to assist.

What are the prospects for the trial?

Dutch investigators will issue international arrest warrants for the four accused and place them on international wanted lists. But they won’t issue extradition requests because they know already that no extradition of nationals is available under the Ukrainian or Russian constitutions.

It seems impossible for the Dutch court to gain actual jurisdiction over the Russian accused. Potentially, should Ukrainian authorities apprehend Kharchenko, he could be tried via video-link.

The Netherlands and Ukraine have entered into an agreement that would permit such an arrangement and – should Kharchenko be convicted – allow for his imprisonment in Ukraine.




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Challenges persist for multiple legal actions regarding MH17


The charges and any penalties originate in Dutch, rather than international, criminal law. Convictions for murder or the intentional downing of an aircraft could result in sentences of up to life imprisonment.

It’s fair to question the value of a prosecution without a court having actual jurisdiction over the accused. The only real answer is that such a trial would enable the presentation and adjudication of evidence and the judgement of a court as to whether charges are made out.

A memorial for the victims of MH17 in the Donetsk region, Ukraine.
Shutterstock

As time goes, the chances of successful prosecutions decline. Meanwhile, interested countries and the victims’ families continue to call for legal redress for the atrocity.

It is also legitimate to ask whether a court can ensure a fair trial for accused persons tried in absentia.

Although it is not explicitly prohibited by international human rights law, the absence of defendants and presumably any legal representative from the courtroom means the accused will not hear the evidence against them or have the ability to present a defence.

Given the four named accused are beyond the actual jurisdiction of the Dutch courts, it can be argued that they (and, at least in the case of Russia, their country) are wilfully avoiding the process of justice. This may be, for some or many observers, sufficient justification for trying them in their absence.The Conversation

Amy Maguire, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Challenges persist for multiple legal actions regarding MH17



File 20170518 24725 1p130v1

Reuters/Michael Kooren

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Multiple parallel actions are ongoing with the aim of achieving truth and justice for the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The flight was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The Conversation

An investigative team, led by the Dutch aviation authority and endorsed by the Australian government, concluded that the aircraft was shot down by a BUK missile. More than 100 individuals were identified in the 2016 report as linked to the incident. The investigation is ongoing.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, advocated for a war crimes tribunal to apportion blame for the incident. However, this proposal was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council.

This week, focus has turned to an action lodged in the European Court of Human Rights by lawyer Jerry Skinner on behalf of 33 relatives of MH17 victims. Skinner claims that the application has reached the stage of “ready for judicial determination”.

As reported last year, each applicant is seeking A$10 million in compensation from Russia. The claim is that Russia is responsible for violating the right to life of those killed due to its alleged supply of the missile that was launched from Ukraine, bringing down the aircraft.

However, the case lodged by Skinner is not yet listed in the court’s database. It is unclear how far the application has progressed but it certainly faces a range of major obstacles. The status of “ready for judicial determination” does not appear to be an official stage of proceedings in the court.

The European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 and sits in Strasbourg. It has jurisdiction to hear complaints from individuals and countries, alleging violations by countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court has delivered more than 10,000 judgments, which are formally binding on the countries subject to them. It receives more than 50,000 applications each year.

The application from Ayler and others is not the first to be lodged in the court in relation to Flight MH17. The case of Ioppa v Ukraine was lodged with the court in 2016.

The four applicants in that case are family members of three of the passengers killed on board Flight MH17. They have complained against Ukraine, rather than Russia. Specifically, they argue Ukraine violated their relatives’ right to life by failing to close the airspace above the military conflict zone that was active in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The applicants allege that Ukrainian authorities intentionally failed to close the airspace despite their knowledge of the dangers posed to civilians travelling over Ukraine in passenger aircraft.

The application is currently noted as a “communicated case”, meaning it is awaiting judgment. The court has asked the applicants to identify what they have done to exhaust any available domestic legal remedies before applying to the court – particularly any legal avenues available in Ukraine.

The court has not yet published a preliminary finding on the admissibility of the case. This is the necessary first step before notice will be given to Ukraine to respond to the application. The case is certainly a long way from any potential judgment by a chamber of the court.

The Council of Europe

The European Court of Human Rights is not a creature of the European Union, but rather of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation of 47 members, 28 of which are also EU members. All Council of Europe members have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe seeks to promote goals central to the international human rights framework, including freedom of expression and of the press, minority rights, and the abolition of the death penalty.

As a Council of Europe member, Ukraine is subject to judgement by the European Court of Human Rights. The applicants in Ioppa v Ukraine are all nationals of Germany, another member. Other Council of Europe members central to the MH17 situation are the Netherlands – because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – and Russia.

Should the European Court of Human Rights find Ukraine liable for a breach of the convention, Ukraine will be bound by that judgment. The committee of ministers of the Council of Europe monitor the execution of judgments by countries subject to them, including compliance with any orders to pay damages to complainants.

However, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe both lack enforcement capacity within the domestic jurisdiction of members, and would rely on diplomatic pressure to compel compliance with a judgment. Such pressure may be more or less effective depending on the status, power and political stance of a given member.

Prospects of success

Skinner has called on Australia to support the Ayler application. Bishop has responded that such litigation is a private matter for the families involved and those they are taking action against.

Bishop’s position is that Australia’s role is to support the ongoing investigation into the causes of the incident and then to pursue a justice mechanism with other countries.

It is important to note that Australia has no standing to join any action before the European Court of Human Rights, as it is not a member of the Council of Europe. However, Skinner argues Australia could exert diplomatic and political pressure to support the action.

Unfortunately for the families engaged in the European Court of Human Rights applications, litigation before that court appears to be a very indirect and unreliable route to gain compensation for the loss of their loved ones.

In the case against Ukraine, beyond the as-yet-uncrossed jurisdictional barriers, it may be necessary to prove that Ukrainian authorities knew of a direct threat to those on board MH17. This is a much more difficult standard to prove than a general awareness of threat to any civilian aircraft.

In action against Russia, setting aside the considerable jurisdictional issues and matters of proof, there is a major added barrier to satisfaction for the applicants. Russia has passed a law permitting it to overrule the decisions of international courts.

The Russian Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that Russia is permitted to overrule international judicial decisions where these would conflict with the Russian Constitution.

Russia disputes the preliminary findings of the ongoing MH17 investigation and rejects suggestions of its responsibility for the atrocity. This suggests that Russia would not accept responsibility for any finding of human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights.

Beyond the human rights context, yet another action has been launched in the International Court of Justice. In that application, Ukraine asks the International Court of Justice to find Russia responsible for the MH17 disaster and order reparations.

From an international law perspective, the stakes of such an action are higher for Russia than human rights litigation launched by victims’ families. However, Russia’s response is likely to be the same. While the International Court of Justice has progressed the case beyond the initial stage, a finding against Russia may well be disputed and any orders ignored.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Tony Abbott Promises to Shirtfront Vladimir Putin


One does have to wonder just how serious Tony Abbott’s comments can be taken, especially this one about ‘shirtfronting’ Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Is this a core promise or just spruiking for the camera – will there be some video record of the shirtfronting, because without it I would find it difficult to believe it has happened.