Thinking back to World War I and the fabled 1914 Christmas Truce, in which more than 100,000 soldiers are said to have taken part, and it’s hard to imagine that this multiday event—with soldiers caroling together, burying their dead, and even playing a bit of soccer—has, to my knowledge, zero film footage of the events captured. As such, it’s a story that has to be told and retold countless times over, from early eyewitness accounts all the way up to a 2005 New York Times article and a 2014 article in TIME commemorating the 100th anniversary of events that seem surreal to us today.
Jump forward to post-Nazi-era Germany in 1946 and the court proceedings addressing the horrific events in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps. At the Nuremberg Trials, named for the German city in which they were held, not only were there eyewitnesses to war crimes that occurred between 1939 and 1945, but there were also photographs and grainy film reels—some recorded by Allied soldiers tasked with liberating the camps, others taken by Nazi “experimenters” in various “labs” at these camps for “scientific” reasons—that could be used as part of the trial proceedings. The introduction of this footage not only accelerated justice in the Nuremberg courtrooms but also created a tabula rasa baseline on which future generations could draw their own conclusions on guilt, innocence, and the horrors of war.
From the 1990s to the mid-2010s, wars were televised, so the immediacy of content availability was realized in 24-hour cycles, and some of those news cycles captured war crimes—often as long as they occurred within the sightline of a broadcast camera, meaning near a hotel in which journalists were housed—leading to additional war-crime tribunals.
Yet a curious thing began to happen, as the immediacy of cable news, which first shortened the news cycles to half-day intervals, and the subsequent arrival of zero-interval news were powered by live-streaming applications that were probably designed by engineers who had no idea their creations would capture greater and greater horrors in war-torn areas.
Far from content being scarce, the integration of streaming into professional- and citizen-based news-gathering has generated such a monumental level of potential war-crime footage that every day sees an additional 10–100 documented cases of crimes against humanity. And this increased footage brings with it both greater accountability and a significantly higher backlog of cases that need to be tried.
If we, as a civil society, are to accurately and impartially adjudicate each of these potential war crimes—in any way close to how the Nuremberg Trials methodically explored each case—one of two things will have to happen over the next few years.
First, if the number of available courts—such as the ones in The Hague, the U.S, the U.K., and various European locations—is not radically expanded, what we’ll face is a decade or more of war-crime tribunals trying to work their way through a massive backlog of cases. We might see cases in 2035 or beyond that stem from a span of just 9 months of war in 2022. Second, if the courts are radically expanded and hundreds of cases are tried in parallel, we might see a quicker adjudication of these crimes. Yet that comes with its own technology challenges.
I’ll take up those challenges in my first column of 2023, calling on the industry to think about proper archival and chain-of-custody issues so there’s no bottleneck in bringing justice in time for victims to know it’s been properly meted out.
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