Forensic and Digital Evidence to Prove Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts: A Way Forward for More Effective Investigations?

Despite that sexual violence in armed conflicts is prohibited by both, international human rights law and international humanitarian law, it remains widespread in many countries. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (further as “DRC”), Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and other countries in relation to sexual violence continues to be serious, and it requires a constant search for possibilities which could facilitate investigation and prosecution of sexual violence.

In recent years, the attention has been paid more to forensic and digital evidence which could facilitate to prove sexual violence, and therefore lead to the conviction of its perpetrators. Forensic evidence, such as hair, semen, blood and other evidence, belongs to so-called medico-legal evidence.[1] Even though the use of forensic evidence is not that widespread in investigations and prosecutions of sexual violence in armed conflicts, a research has showed the possible value of such evidence in relation to international crimes.[2] For example, it would be beneficial to get a DNA of perpetrators “as they move through a region.”[3] If DNA was extracted from victims and their partners to eliminate them as potential suspects, any other DNA could belong to the perpetrators.[4] Obtaining samples from a larger number of victims in a widespread attack could then lead to generate “the collective DNA of the attacking group.”[5]

Admittedly, there will be challenges to get such a forensic evidence during armed conflicts, certainly because of security issues, but also because of the demands on collecting, storing and analysing of such evidence.[6] However, if the cooperation between legal and medical services would improve, victims could undergo the forensic examination immediately in the place of medical examination, and the responsible persons could arrange that the results are duly collected and transmitted to the legal services.[7]

Although some studies from the past did not entirely demonstrate “positive legal outcomes” in relation to the use of medico-legal evidence, the reason could be the limits of these studies.[8] When a medico-legal evidence exists, it can serve as tool for more effective investigations and prosecutions of sexual violence acts also because accumulated anonymous data from medical records can assist to establish the frequency and context of sexual violence in the certain areas of armed conflicts.[9] The benefits of medico-legal evidence has been showed in 2018, when the cooperation between Panzi General Reference Hospital in the DRC, medico-legal facilities and Physicians for Human Rights helped to investigate and prosecute the acts of rape.[10] The forensic evidence assisted “to corroborate witness testimony and to provide key physical and psychological data about the survivors without compelling them to testify in court.”[11] Finally, this led to the upheld of conviction of perpetrators in the case of Kavumu for crimes against humanity of rapes of young girls in the DRC.[12] These condemnable acts of rape concerned the girls between the ages of 18 months and 11 years in the town of Kavumu who were abducted between the years 2013 and 2015, taken to the fields, raped, and left there.[13]

Besides forensic evidence, the more widespread use of digital evidence could also help to prove sexual violence, and lead to more effective investigations and prosecutions.[14] As an example could serve a mobile application called MediCapt, recently developed by Physicians for Human Rights to assist the medical staff to “more effectively collect, document, and securely store forensic medical evidence of sexual violence to support the prosecution of these crimes.”[15] The uniqueness of this mobile application is represented by the combination of “medical intake form for forensic documentation” and mobile camera for forensic photographs, enabling to keep essential forensic evidence of sexual violence when its users can collect the evidence and transfer it safely to law-enforcement officials.[16]

Nevertheless, the use of mobile applications, such as MediCapt, also bears certain ethical, legal and security issues, for example potential hacking despite its secureness, or the questions concerning the informed consent of victims, protection and ethics of data collection.[17] As a brand new Draft Murad Code[18] states, it is essential that “measures to protect the survivor’s information and data, including (…) online communications, data management and storage,” are taken while necessarily having informed consent from survivors.[19]

Despite the possible mentioned issues, there still exists a large potential value of such evidence obtained from mobile applications. For example, MediCapt allows its users to obtain more data than it is in paper documents, it is easily accessible not only for clinicians but also for investigators and other authorities involved in investigation and prosecution, and its encrypted data can alleviate risks of leaking sensitive information, otherwise inevitably risky in armed conflicts.[20]

Moreover, in comparison to past armed conflicts when the use of mobile phones was not so widespread,[21] more than 70 percent of the worldwide population in 2023 will use mobile phones,[22] presumably including doctors and authorities in conflict-affected areas. Since more widespread use of mobile phones is inevitable, obtaining possible evidence from them should become part of local authorities trainings and the focus of investigators, provided that ethical questions about informed consent of victims will be solved, and data protection will be strictly observed. With this development, sooner or later even survivors themselves might become more regular users of mobile applications enabling them to report and document sexual violence committed against them,[23] and thus assisting to more effective investigations and prosecutions of these condemnable acts.

Helena Kopecká is a human rights lawyer from the Czech Republic with practical experience in national and international criminal law, human rights and refugee law. Her research focuses mainly on victims of international crimes, investigation and prosecution of sexual violence in armed conflicts, as well as international refugee law.

[1] Medico-legal evidence includes both forensic evidence, and also documentation, e.g. documentation of medical history and treatments of patients etc. – See UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, ‘International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict’ (2017) 156 <> accessed 11 December 2020.

[2] Kim Thuy Seelinger, Helene Silverberg and Robin Mejia, ‘The Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Violence’ (2011) Human Rights Centre, University of California, Berkeley 30 <> accessed 11 December 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] International Protocol (n 1) 156.

[7] Seelinger and others (n 2) 12, 32.

[8] Janice Du Mont and Deborah White, ‘The uses and impacts of medico-legal evidence in sexual assault cases: A Global Review'(2007) WHO 32 <> accessed 13 December 2020.

[9] International Protocol (n 1) 158.

[10] Physicians for Human Rights, ‘Medical-Legal Collaboration Leads to Justice in Serial Rape Case in Democratic Republic of the Congo'(2019) <> accessed 12 December 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Digital or electronic evidence is: “any probative information or data that is stored on, received or transmitted by an electronic device,” examples are videos, photographs, information from social media, emails, messages, metadata, images from satellites etc. – See International Protocol (n 1) 150.

[15] Physicians for Human Rights, ‘PHR Mobile App “MediCapt” Wins American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Innovator Recognition’ (2019) <> accessed 12 December 2020.

[16] Karen Naimer, Widney Brown and Ranit Mishori, ‘MediCapt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Design, Development, and Deployment of Mobile Technology to Document Forensic Evidence of Sexual Violence’ (2017) 26 Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal.

[17] Naimer and others (n 16) 33 – 34; Colette Mazzucelli and Anna Visvizi, ‘Querying the Ethics of Data Collection as a Community of Research and Practice. The Movement toward the “Liberalism of Fear” to Protect the Vulnerable'(2017)11Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal.

[18] The new Draft Global Code of Conduct for Investigating and Documenting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (Draft Murad Code) is named after Nadia Murad, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work against sexual violence, and a survivor of sexual violence committed by ISIS in Iraq. The Code contains 8 core principles based on which its users commit to “safe, ethical and effective practices to support the rights of survivors.” – See Draft Murad Code (June 2020) <> accessed 13 December 2020.

[19] Draft Murad Code (n 18), Principle 6.6.

[20] Naimer and others (n 16) 27.

[21] Ibid. 26.

[22] Cisco, ‘Annual Internet Report (2018–2023) White Paper’ (2020) <> accessed 15 December 2020.

[23] For instance, Wangu Kanja Foundation (WKF) has developed a new mobile application and cooperated with the University of  Birmingham to assist to reduce sexual violence – See University of Birmingham, ‘Novel mobile app could help to reduce sexual violence in Kenya’ (2019) <> accessed 15 December 2020.

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