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Memo from Kharkiv: mapping the realities of Ukrainian documenter communities

After working with Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) for the past year, our recent needs assessment offers an insightful glimpse into the realities, challenges, and opportunities that Ukrainian human rights defenders are facing in their efforts to document and expose war crimes.

The realities of working as a human rights documenter in an active war zone are complex and often unique to specific regions and contexts. Building on a year of partnership, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) and OpenArchive have set out on a joint initiative to map some of these realities and create tools that can empower local human rights defender and archivist communities to conduct their work as efficiently and safely as possible, while accounting for the particular challenges and characteristics of conflict zones in Ukraine.

A recent needs assessment – designed, developed, and administered by KHPG and OpenArchive – offers an insightful glimpse into the realities, challenges, and opportunities that Ukrainian human rights defenders are facing in their efforts to document and expose war crimes and hold perpetrators to account.

While a survey can of course never completely capture the range and depth of experiences, it has already proven a useful tool to map the risk landscape for the team in Ukraine – especially those concentrated in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Khmelnytskyi – and consider the best modes and mechanisms to develop and deliver support to history’s first responders.

Needs and Opportunities for Support

KHPG survey respondents identified four gaps in resources and capacities that shape their everyday workflow: a lack of technical and financial resources (especially with respect to file storage systems), imperfect technical operations of database systems, incomplete information regarding attacks and hostilities, and poor communication due inconsistent technical capacities and capabilities among colleagues.

Funding, resource allocation, technical training, digital tools, and communication platforms could all play a meaningful role in improving the working experience for KHPG staff.

“In the very beginning of the Russian invasion, we managed to quickly build a dedicated database and then create a strong network of documenters. Now it's time to carefully analyze our workflow to see if we can make it more productive and safe,” says Denys Volokha, KHPG’s Media Director.

OpenArchive remains committed to supporting our KHPG counterparts and facilitating trainings on best practices for archiving and digital security in active war zones to help fill some of the existing gaps identified by those on the ground.

Overview of Findings & Risk Landscape for KHPG Team and Partners in Ukraine

The sample of 24 individuals captured a broad range of roles within the community – including lawyers, documenters, database managers, and project managers – and a shared commitment to documenting war crimes and holding perpetrators to account.

Nearly 92% of survey respondents are presently based in Ukraine and 54% of total respondents focus their work efforts on the Kharkiv region in particular, either remotely or locally. The region is located in northeast Ukraine and borders Russia, which makes it extremely vulnerable. From February to September 2022, almost half of the region’s territory was under Russian occupation.

Sixty-three percent of all respondents work directly for KHPG while the remaining participants were affiliated with partner organizations. In 2022, several dozen nonprofit organizations joined their efforts in a global initiative “Tribunal for Putin” (“T4P” in short) to document war crimes committed by Russia in the territory of Ukraine in the joint database using KHPG’s methodology.

All survey participants identified their primary goals as one, or both, of the following: documenting war crimes and/or offering legal assistance to prosecute those accountable for war crimes.

The survey yielded key information on the framework of communication and connection within the archivist community. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents receive multimedia evidence directly from eyewitnesses, most commonly via instant messaging applications (like WhatsApp and Signal), social media platforms, and custom databases. The majority of participants use OneDrive or Google Drive to store the received media, while a handful of respondents (22%) opt to save files directly on their computers. Colleagues, citizen journalists, media outlets, general public, and local NGOs, were other key sources within this network of media collection that respondents identified. The mechanisms through which the large volumes of media intake is achieved is primarily through mobile footage (80.3% of respondents), Telegram scraping (70.8% of respondents), YouTube (66.7% of respondents), Facebook scraping (62.5% of respondents), and documents (50% of respondents).

Shelling, air raids, landmines, and violent arrests – perpetrated by Russia and its occupying forces – are a few of the physical risks that respondents named that shape their daily working realities within Ukraine. These physical threats in turn create a landscape of precarious infrastructure that contributes to digital risks.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently called on Russia to observe international humanitarian law, explicitly with regards to protecting critical civilian infrastructure, such as energy facilities and hydroelectric power stations. Recent missile attacks have already compromised energy sources throughout Ukraine posing severe risks to the population, and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) warns that future strikes could lead to further deterioration.

Nearly 48% of the survey respondents identified power outages and internet disruptions as key threats that interrupt their connectivity and threaten their security and the security of their sources, colleagues, and work content.

Respondents’ connectivity preferences and accessibility map onto these realities and tend to vary based on role, location, environment. Those respondents that capture evidence first-hand – in the form of mobile media, testimonials, and/or primary source research – often lack any internet connection on the ground. When connection is possible on the ground, these respondents expressed a strong preference to connect via mobile data and then once in a physically safe location, they typically prefer to use secure WiFi networks to upload and organize evidence. Those that organize, maintain, and use the first-hand evidence are often stationary and can safely connect to a consistent and secure internet connection via WiFi.

Email attacks, censorship, hacking, digital surveillance and interception, and compromised confidentiality all influence the contours of the digital risk landscape in addition to the physical threats caused by wartime hostilities. While documenting abuses/incidents on the ground, 50% of respondents have experienced data loss, 25% have faced phone confiscation, 25% have struggled with internet connectivity, 12.5% have encountered malware or hacking, 8.3% have had their information compromised, and nearly 5% have experienced WiFi interception.

User Personas and Use Cases

OpenArchive is now leveraging the findings from the survey to map KHPG’s needs and activities in order to build a more responsive framework. This is largely being conducted through user persona building, a human-rights-centered-design (HRCD) research method that allows us to discover and gain deeper insight into the structural harms that KHPG and its partners experience.

User personas are modeled after a particular individual or role, but also incorporate fictional aspects that researchers use to create archetypes that describe the behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and background information, as well as the environment in which the role operates. This HRCD-focused strategy is an intersectional, safe, and secure approach to developing a robust archetype that represents key characteristics relevant to the role.

Read about the following user personas here: Nadia, Ivan, and Oleksandra.