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Challenging human rights abuses through technology – Google Earth and North Korea

Thanks to Google Earth, North Korea’s labour camps can now be seen from outer space. Human Rights Watch estimates that these remote mountain camps hold up to 200,000 people who are considered hostile to the regime. As many as 400,000 others are believed to have died in these camps – from starvation, disease, torture and execution.

Human rights activists are now using Google’s technology and data now publicly available to identify the vast network of prison camps dotting the North Korean countryside. This week, the One Free Korea blog highlighted the locations of six camps, using many images from Google Earth to help tell their story. One Free Korea blogger and Washington Lawyer Joshua Stanten told Irish outlet RTÉ News that “the good that Google has done, however inadvertently, by helping people tell the truth about North Korea, will probably be reflected in the history of the country one day.”

While satellite systems have provided geographical information to companies and governments for many years, wider access to this kind of data is a comparatively recent development. As technology helps expose human rights abuses, I hope that by extension, it will play an important role in (eventually) bringing perpetrators to account. The Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) has long been a concern for the Foreign Office, and is one of 28 countries of concern for human rights that we report on every quarter. You can read and comment on the latest update on DPRK on our Human Rights and Democracy Report website.

The Google Earth story is the latest in an increasing number of examples where technology is helping human rights actors collect and reveal evidence of abuses, making it harder for governments, companies and individuals to keep their secrets safe from the rest of the world.

In December, we invited Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe to explain how the organisation is using digital tools to map incidents of sexual violence in Syria in the ongoing conflict. By using a live, crowd-sourced map of Syria it is documenting evidence that will hopefully be used in the future to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Foreign Office is very supportive of this work, and challenging impunity for crimes of sexual violence in conflict is a major priority for 2013. As FCO’s Digital Communications Manager for human rights, I’m interested in other examples of how technology is helping in the human rights space, so please do comment with your thoughts.

16 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    At last the Human rights Laws are acting the the people’s best interests for once. It’s a shame they do no consider the victim’s rights.

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  4. Layla says:

    Expose the despotic government of Eritrea, and it’s prisons in the worse desert zones. An estimated number of 10.000 prisoners detained without trial, sometimes incognito, in the most inhumane conditions. Many die, and thousand of youngsters flee the country every month. Please see Human Rights reports. http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-eritrea

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  6. John says:

    Obviously somewhere like Syria it is far easier to collect data as mobiles are widespread. NK and the like poses a difficult challenge but micro technology play a role here for getting ground level photos?

  7. John says:

    Thank you for the link Amelia,
    I will have a read over the weekend.

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  9. Amelia Timewell says:

    Thanks very much for all the comments and for taking the time to read my blog. Look forward to further discussions on human rights and technology.

  10. Kadijah F. says:

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