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Recognising Sexual and Gender-Based Violence as an Open Source Researcher

*This article contains descriptions of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find distressing*

Open source methods are increasingly used to document and report on conflicts around the world. From verifying secretive troop movements to identifying potential war crimes, open source investigations have often been the first to uncover important developments. Yet one aspect of this emerging field that remains ethically complex and practically challenging for researchers is sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Human rights investigators have long known that sexual and gender-based violence is a regular occurance in armed conflict and amounts to recognised crimes under international law.

But online investigators, many of whom do not conduct research as their full-time job or do not come from a human rights background, might not realise exactly what they are witnessing when they come across content that depicts sexual violence in war zones. If they do recognise it, they may not know how to treat it or realise that failure to do so thoughtfully can cause further harm to the victims and survivors.

Even if not actively seeking out content related to SGBV or planning to investigate it directly, its presence in armed conflict means it’s likely to appear in open source materials at some point. There have been several recent instances of SGBV being reported via open sources in recent years, including in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia.

Alexa Koenig – the co-executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley and Ulic Egan – the program manager at the Institute for International Criminal Investigations – explore the challenges for researchers in this field, outlining how “effectively and ethically researching sexual violence online requires heightened sensitivities to those issues and an expanded set of strategies on the part of investigators.”

Bellingcat reviewed the existing literature on SGBV and open source research and spoke to four people with expertise in related fields to understand some of the strategies to deal with this content.

What is Sexual and Gender-Based Violence?

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) defines gender-based violence as “any harmful act directed against individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender.” It describes sexual violence, meanwhile, as “a form of gender-based violence and encompasses any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.”

It’s important to note that sexual violence can be committed by anyone against any other person, regardless of sex or age. An essentialist understanding of sexual violence may reduce it to the rape of a woman by a man. According to the UN OHCHR while women and girls are disproportionally affected by sexual violence, these acts can also affect men, children. LGBTQI+ persons can also be victims of SGBV. One common thread seen in armed conflict, and which has been highlighted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, is that of sexual violence against men and boys.

Illustration (c) by Ann Kiernan for Bellingcat.

Unsurprisingly, knowing the definition of what is considered sexual and gender-based violence is critical to identifying it, when carrying out online investigations.

Yet definitions of SGBV in international criminal law are broadly defined to include a wide scope of potential crimes. Some crimes may be both SGBV and another crime such as torture; there are also stand alone crimes of rape other forms of sexual violence and gender-based persecution.

In 2019, however, The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence were released, demonstrating how comprehensive sexual violence can be.

As the principles outlined: “Meaningfully addressing sexual violence starts with understanding all forms of sexual violence.”

The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence

1. The act involved exposing a ‘sexual body part’ or physical contact with such a body part, including over clothing; 2. The act was intended to be sexual by the perpetrator or was perceived as such by the affected person or their community as being sexual in nature; 3. The perpetrator or a third party derived sexual gratification from the act, or intended to do so; 4. The act, while not necessarily sexual in itself, was intended to impact: a. The affected person’s sexual autonomy or sexual integrity, including their capacity to engage in sexual activity, feel sexual desire, or have intimate relationships; b. the affected person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; or c. the affected person’s reproductive capacity or reproductive autonomy; 5. The act involved sexual innuendos or language with implicit or explicit sexual connotations for the affected person, the community, or the perpetrator 6. The act involved use, interference, control, or degradation of fluids or tissue associated with sexual and reproductive capacity, including semen, vaginal fluids, menstrual blood, breast milk, or placenta.

Why is SGBV Relevant to Investigators?

At first glance, open source investigators might not be aware that content related to SGBV is posted online. Alexa Koenig and Ulic Egan challenge this assumption in their recent work on open source investigations and SGBV.

They found that: “survivors– as well as perpetrators and bystanders – are sharing information related to sexual and gender-based violence online, but that investigators aren’t always realising what to look for, or even how to look.”

Engaging with content depicting SGBV without taking proper precautions can cause a number of issues.

In many jurisdictions the sharing, saving or viewing of sexualised images of minors is a crime – even if it’s for investigative purposes. In some cases, the filming and sharing of sexual and gender-based violence on social media is used by perpetrators to shame, threaten, or make an example of their targets or their communities. So the sharing of such content could further stigmatise survivors.

Koenig and Egan refer to cases of “sextortion” and “sexual blackmail” where video recordings of rapes and sexual exploitation were used in a number of contexts including Sri Lanka. The recordings served as tools to “blackmail the victims to submit to further acts of sexual violence on the threat the videos would be disseminated if they didn’t.”

Sexual and gender-based violence are also highly stigmatised crimes. Incorrectly reporting on them may re-traumatise survivors. In addition to stigma, survivors may be ostracised from their communities, become a target of honour killings, face retaliation, and in some cases have to deal with arrest, job or property loss. In some cultures and communities, women who are victims of SGBV may face prosecution under adultery laws. In places where homosexuality is illegal a man experiencing sexual violence may face barriers reporting this and seeking justice.

Notably, the extent of the impact is not limited to the individual who experienced the violence- and may be deceased – but also their family and greater community.

Shyamala Alagendra is a UN Gender and Child Rights Advisor and has been working in international criminal investigations for the last 23 years. Alagendra told Bellingcat that developments in investigating and prosecuting SGBV in international courts over the past 20 years means legal practitioners no longer automatically view SGBV as isolated acts or opportunistic crime. “We now understand that perpetrators’ policies are very much to target women and gender for more profound reasons and as part of a calculated policy – ‘breaking the spirit.’” It therefore stands to reason that if investigators are not aware of these definitions or this context, they could be missing out on an entire subset of potential crimes when conducting their investigations.

‘Do No Harm’ and Keeping the Human Element in Mind

In 2014, at a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict, more than 200 gender and sexual violence experts collaborated to produce The International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The second edition of the protocol, published in 2017 outlines:

“[P]ractitioners must be fully aware of the possible negative impacts of documentation on victims and other witnesses, the wider community and the investigators themselves; be prepared for the harm those impacts may inflict; and put in place measures to prevent or minimise that harm.”

This lines up with the broader concept of ‘do no harm’ – derived from medical ethics, it requires humanitarians and other actors to strive to minimise the harm they may cause inadvertently by their presence and by providing assistance and services.

Carolyn Edgerton is a lawyer who spent more than 30 years working in domestic and international criminal investigations and prosecutions. She told Bellingcat that centering individuals impacted by SGBV at the heart of investigations “forces you to understand the individual and shift your thinking back to the motivations or the intent of the perpetrator.”

Image sourced from 123RF.

As many open source investigators could confirm, the focus of research is often on one specific aspect of the conflict – a single photo or video. Because of this the human element can be lost.

Another complicating factor is that online investigations often require a level of dissociation from the content in order to healthily deal with the extent of the visible violence.

Alix Vuillemin is the Advocacy Director of Womens’ Initiatives for Gender Justice, the organisation responsible for creating The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence. She outlined to Bellingcat that “everyone disassociates to a certain extent…when you see all these materials you do need to because otherwise you can’t [go on]…So if you don’t educate yourself well you will add to the suffering of these people…”

How Do I Know I’m Seeing SGBV?

SGBV can be identified in a number of contexts within a conflict zone. An insecure humanitarian situation, for example, may serve as an overarching indicator of potential SGBV, as it may leave displaced people, women, children, elderly, and LGBTQI+ persons at heightened risk.

The International Protocol outlined above highlights that ‘red flags’ for potential SGBV can help indicate certain situations or incidents where SGBV is occurring or imminent. To ensure SGBV ‘red flags’ do not get missed in investigations, Shyamala Alagendra advises to incorporate recognition of SGBV into all investigative steps: “make it a priority in your overall strategy… include it in every tool, investigation template, witness interview plan. ”

Below are a number of examples or indicators of potential SGBV that researchers may come across. The list was compiled by consulting the International Protocol, as well as other resources on SGBV (which we have linked to) and by speaking with experts in the field.

  • Visible genitalia. If there is genitalia visible in footage or images this is a red flag for potential SGBV. The Hague Principles outline any act related to a “sexual body part” could amount to sexual violence.

  • The presence of full or partial nudity. The International Protocol outlines that “forced nudity may also be used (e.g. during interrogation) to increase the humiliation and sense of vulnerability of the victim.” Nudity, even shirtlessness, may be an indicator of SGBV. So it is important to understand the cultural context and gender norms for a given area or country. Often nudity will be used in conjunction with other actions in order to humiliate a victim. Nudity in detention, for example, may indicate a wide variety of sexual violence crimes including but not limited to rape, forced nudity, sexual touching and cruel/inhumane treatment.

  • Threats of sexual violence. The International Protocol outlines that threats to carry out acts of sexual violence constitute SGBV. Something that could be identified in social media videos are individuals or groups talking about committing sexual violence. Social media posts depicting members of the military threatening to commit, incite or even making jokes about sexual violence could be an indicator that it is happening.

  • Burnt bodies. A UN Department of Peacekeeping operations document that reviewed sexual violence elements of the judgements of a number of International Criminal Tribunals outlines cases where the burning of houses accompanied acts of sexual violence. In an interview with Bellingcat, Alexa Koenig outlined that even burnt villages can indicate potential SGBV. In Myanmar bodies were reportedly burned in order to cover up evidence of sexual violence that took place.

  • Targeting of a specific group. The International Protocol outlines that forced separation of men and older boys from women and younger children may indicate that sexual violence is present. This may also apply to women and girls in armed conflict. It may also indicate that a gender-based crime not of a sexual nature is occuring

  • Possible weapons or strange objects. Alexa Koenig outlined to Bellingcat that images or footage of weapons and strange objects near bodies or in the background may indicate that SGBV has occurred. Examples include bottles, guns, broom handles or parts of these objects.

  • Occupation of a place or area. The International Protocol outlines that armed control of camps is one fact that could indicate the presence of SGBV. Carolyn Edgerton expands that this detention could occur anywhere including a single dwelling or building that armed forces have occupied. The current conflict in Ukraine has included instances of SGBV in occupied areas.

  • Campaigns against SGBV. If local groups are campaigning against sexual violence this could be an indicator SGBV. In Myanmar victims and survivors of SGBV started the social media campaign #Sisters2Sisters to highlight incidents of sexual violence following the 2021 military coup in which civil rights activists and opposition figures were targeted by the junta.

So you’ve identified SGBV in Open Source, Now What?

Alexa Koenig advises researchers to keep in mind that they may be witnessing the very worst moment of people’s lives and they should therefore treat the material with the respect it requires. For instance, sharing or reposting intimate content that reveals identifying information about a person could diminish their entire life to their worst experience.

The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence provides guidance “to ensure violence is not overlooked or trivialised by those who may not always recognise such acts.”

It outlines that recognising and naming acts of sexual violence provides survivors with recognition and validation of their experiences.

“Get Educated”: Resources for Investigating SGBV Content

When Bellingcat asked Alix Vuillemin what open source researchers should do when carrying out investigations that may involve SGBV, her answer was simple.

“Get Educated. That’s it.”

The Advocacy Director of Womens’ Initiatives for Gender Justice explained that there are a number of excellent resources on SGBV. Some resources have been developed specifically on SGBV and open source investigation, while other resources have been developed for journalists and researchers on the ground and can also provide insight into how to approach SGBV. Some of these resources are listed below:

  • The International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict

  • The Hague Principles on Sexual Violence

  • Dart Centre Europe: Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict

  • GIJN: Best Practices for Journalists Covering Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

  • How to Responsibly Report War-Related Sexual Violence

  • How to Do a Gender Analysis: Practical Guidance for the UN Community

  • Integrating A Gender Perspective Into Human Rights Investigations

Other resources include the Murad Code, a voluntary code of conduct for the safe, effective and ethical collection and use of victim or survivor information linked to conflict-related sexual violence. It outlines that researchers should inform themselves about who else is doing the same or similar research in order to better understand if the work is necessary and if there is opportunity for coordination and collaboration. This concept is similar to a rigorous journalistic or academic approach. In practice, it would see researchers reaching out to local NGOs or womens’ rights or LGBTQI+ groups to consult with those familiar with SGBV and researching the gender dynamics of a particular context. This can help provide a deeper understanding of what to look for in open source imagery, understand the wider context as well as the impact the research may have on the victim or survivor.

Separately, Bellingcat’s Justice & Accountability work on Ukraine includes a dedicated procedure for dealing with crimes of SBGV – how to approach it and integrate it into a specific investigative methodology. It seeks to establish a system for approaching these crimes separately and in a manner that provides dignity for the victim, and integrate a gender perspective into the work. The UN’s International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism describes integrating a gender perspective as “understanding of differences in status, power, roles, and needs between all genders, and the impact of gender on people’s opportunities and interactions.”

Examining one’s own gender biases may be part of this process, The Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations – a global framework for using publicly available information in human rights investigations – includes guidelines to understanding bias of investigators and biases online. Finally there are a number of different attributes – for which a person may be discriminated against or persecuted for – and taking that into account in investigations is crucial. Including these factors in an investigation helps to form a well-rounded understanding of an incident, especially because victims can be targeted because of their intersecting features.

Koenig and Egan argue that open source researchers who do identify SGBV should keep in mind the power an investigator holds in choosing what to investigate.

“To investigate is to exercise power — to determine which crimes are worthy of the time, money and other resources needed to determine the facts underlying those crimes, and whose voices, experiences and perspectives should be prioritised. Power dynamics are present both between the investigating entity and those investigated, and more generally in the situation under investigation.”

Ongoing Challenges: The Future of SGBV and Open Source

As detailed above, there are many aspects of traditional investigations that can inform open source research. However, it also seems clear that they cannot solve all the unique challenges that open source investigators face when dealing with SGBV.

One interesting realm that could be explored in future is the concept of “informed consent”- detailed in this ICC paper- where the survivor or victim is totally in control of the information they provide, including their testimony or image, and can revoke that consent at any time. For now, this does not seem like a possibility for online open source investigators, as content involving armed conflict is often found via third parties. However, efforts are being made to get closer to informed consent and try to give autonomy back to those depicted whenever possible.

In Bellingcat’s Justice & Accountability work it is acknowledged that informed consent is not always possible. However, restrictions are placed on who SGBV content is shared with. At the time of writing, this is only shared “with prosecutorial/international bodies or partners after considering any relevant policies they have in place which are designed to protect the sanctity and dignity of victims.” Similarly, in Bellingcat’s Civilian Harm Map, all the data is embedded – if the original poster deletes the content, it will be removed from the map.

How the open source community will evolve in this realm remains to be seen, but in terms of SGBV, best practices have already been established in human rights investigations which are trying to go towards a more survivor-centric model. In open source investigations, more work remains to be done. As Alexa Koenig told Bellingcat: “We are only at the beginning of understanding that full spectrum of [sexual] violence. And that the digital open source investigations community has a lot to potentially contribute to helping us understand that spectrum but also make sure that it’s accounted for.”


(c) 2023, Bellingcat



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