The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice
Ronald Niezen



Whatever reality there might be to the hopes and fears circulating about the new information age, there is no denying the growing presence of new technologies in daily experience. Let me give a couple of personal examples. As I recently boarded a plane from Washington, DC, to Paris, I was surprised to find that my passport was unnecessary—cameras connected to a facial recognition application confirmed my identity and, one by one, that of every other passenger on the flight. (I couldn’t repress troubling thoughts about how this technology might otherwise be used.) Not long after my arrival in Paris, I stopped by in person to make a reservation in a restaurant near where I was staying. I gave the woman at the desk my first name, and when she entered it into the touchscreen, I could see the rest of the information about me fill in automatically, including my home address and telephone number in Canada. “Ah, vous voilà!” she said, and I left with both a confirmed reservation and a puzzle as to how my information had found its way into the restaurant’s database.

I’m sure that many readers of this book will have had their own encounters with such points of technological acceleration and dissonance. One of the odd things about these kinds of experiences is their ordinariness, their matter-of-factness. There is none of the fanfare or heroism of the kind described by Stefan Zweig in his account of the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable that first connected the United States and Europe with instant messaging in 1858.1 Innovations are simply finding (or obtruding) their way into daily life, with the struggles and heroism that lie behind them taking place hidden from view, in boardrooms and the minds of engineers and programmers.

In this book I am reappraising human rights through the lens of such experiences, or to be more precise, through consideration of the combined technological and political revolutions that are producing them and bringing them into the realms of both ordinary life and extraordinary struggles for justice. Everyday encounters with new information technology involve experience with the very tools being used by some states and corporations, alone and in collaboration, to invade the privacy of individuals and organizations, often with the intention of muzzling dissent.2 This invasion of privacy includes the rise of social media as once-unimaginable sources of corporate profit and as platforms of misinformation and incivility that have become instruments of power.

Bleak as these developments might be, I did not find in the research for this book an absence of creativity and will toward freedom by those making human rights claims. There are new methods and powers to be found in technologies applied toward collective organization, public mobilization, and truth seeking. Taken together, innovations in information technology have produced a multidimensional digital arms race, most apparently one in which ambitious states are in competition with one another for supremacy over hacking capabilities and social media manipulation in struggles for power, but also in which activists and advocates are asserting basic claims and creating conditions of public persuasion, accountability, and respect for human dignity. In the rapid development of new information technologies and their application, it has become possible to see the contours of a new era of human rights, evident in both the means of oppression and of dissent.

In this book, I have assembled these developments in the form of an ambitious goal: to present a picture of a particular moment in time in the relationship between a rapidly changing media landscape and the processes and means by which people are attempting to bring the powerful to account. The only real point of clarity in this moment is its uncertainty, marked by areas of contest that remain undecided: the growing reach of “surveillance capitalism” that has not reached an end point;3 the uncertain outcome of the post-truth crisis, as channels of information are readily captured and subjected to strategic distortion; and the efforts of the “tech left” and countless owners of smartphones to create new avenues to truth and accountability. A focus on human rights activism provides a point of departure to explore these contests and crises in a panoramic way.

Another part of what I have to say, particularly in chapter 2, is historical. There appears to be a connection in time and place between the so-called human rights revolution and the dramatic innovations that have taken place in information technologies. An argument can be made that these technologies have facilitated and shaped human rights and social justice advocacy in key ways, which largely account for the transformations that historians are pointing to as central to our understanding of where the international regime of human rights comes from and where it is going. I offer just such an argument here, through an ethnographically informed study of the contemporary.

My introduction to the work of Bellingcat, a citizen-journalist “collective” based in Leicester, UK, represents the furthest distance from my personal starting point in these explorations. In my participation in a workshop in Amsterdam and conversations with the founder, Eliot Higgins, the open source investigators conducting the workshop, and other contributors to the loose organization they refer to as “the Collective,” I gained insight into and greater curiosity toward this emerging dimension of monitoring and forensics efforts oriented toward (among other things) encouraging state compliance with the standards of international law (as described more fully in chapter 3).

Human rights would diminish and disappear without the energy provided by its claimants, and it is on their perspectives that I focus, particularly in chapters 5 and 6. In taking this approach, I rely on case study–based illustrations of activists’ navigation of their particular media ecologies, bearing in mind the anthropological injunction to the effect that it is important to begin from the ground up, to learn from social movements in action as they make use of various ITs and “traditional” media to organize, communicate, and mobilize, rather than to begin with the technologies and argue about their possible revolutionary effects. Consistent with this point, I have made an effort to hammer some longer-term research into new shape and significance, making it possible to offer two transnational case studies based on historical and ethnographic methods: that of the Tuaregs of northern Mali and their diaspora in Europe and that of the Ovaherero and Nama in a transnational campaign for genocide recognition in Namibia and Germany. Here my goal is to shift perspective toward those who are asserting justice claims in complex conditions, following the premise that justice-oriented technologies cannot be properly understood in abstract isolation, but can be better situated in the actual conditions of their development and use—that is to say, in the untidy mess of state power gone awry, competing political aspirations, memory and memorialization of mass atrocity, and struggles over public persuasion and sympathy. Focusing too narrowly on the tools of advocacy makes them stand out unnaturally, producing the same distortions as any other undue media attention to things that resonate with publics.

The inclusion of this kind of case material has made this book challenging on several levels. I am pulling together and recontextualizing some of my previous work (albeit sparingly, not wanting to repeat myself) and adding the results of new research, all while taking on a much wider topic: the way that new ITs are reconfiguring human rights advocacy and, in return, the way that this advocacy serves as a focused way to understand some of the social consequences of these technologies. My intention is to provide a picture in time of the new ecosystem of human rights activism without giving up on the ideals of closer insight and accidental discovery in context. I have hopefully been able to draw on just enough case material in this book to give a sense of the variety, creativity, and, at times, desperation of those who are using new media to convey their experiences and represent the conditions of their lives in efforts to raise public awareness of their claims and causes.

Expressing thanks to all those who contributed in some way to the production of this book is made difficult by the fact that my obligations extend back through the decades, so let me begin more recently and see where this takes me. With the freedom that came from a year as a visiting professor at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in 2018–2019, I was given exposure to new and emerging research at Harvard, including at the Weatherhead Center, the Department of Anthropology, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. I am grateful to John and Jean Comaroff and George Meiu for giving me a place (actually, something very nearly like an intellectual home) in the workshop series at Harvard’s Center for African Studies, particularly for the opportunity to present and receive outstanding feedback on a draft of my paper on Ovaherero and Nama rights claims in Germany, included here as chapter 6. My explorations during this leave year also took me to events hosted by the MIT Media Lab and MIT’s Comparative Media Studies / Writing program.

Looking back a little further, I am indebted to the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle(Salle), Germany, for hosting me often and offering that rarest of things: quiet in the context of rich library resources and scholarly ferment. In terms of funding, I had the great advantage of flexible support from two chair programs: a Canada Research Chair in the Anthropology of Law and the Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy. The organizations that hosted me as a researcher include Bellingcat, the Organisation de la Diaspora Touaregue en Europe, the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, Berlin Postkolonial, SITU Research, and MIT Students Against War. My understanding of the work of these organizations would be incomplete without their members who shared their experiences and insights with me. I benefited from presenting my work-in-progress at Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Sciences Po Lille, the University of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Essex. Two chapters of this book are much-revised versions of work published elsewhere; I owe thanks to Cambridge University Press, which published my chapter in Sandra Brunnegger’s edited volume Everyday Justice: Law, Ethnography, and Context (appearing here in chapter 1), and to the International Journal of Heritage Studies, which generously allowed my material to appear here (in chapter 6). I am grateful for the support and involvement of the people at Stanford University Press, above all my editor, Michelle Lipinski, and the anonymous reviewers of my proposal and manuscript for their important suggestions.

This book derived much of its original inspiration from a 2016 panel at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association, put together by Rita Kesselring, in which participants were asked to imagine the future of the anthropology of law. I am grateful to Maria Sapignoli for thinking through this problem with me and following up with important conversations (often supported with references) about information technologies in law and global governance. Rachel Thompson went beyond her work as a research assistant by introducing me to people and panels at MIT that I otherwise would have overlooked and commenting on a draft of the manuscript. I also received feedback on chapters of the draft manuscript from John Comaroff (chapter 1), Reinier Torenbeek (chapter 2), and Enrique Piracés (chapter 3). From here, the list of individuals who in one way or another contributed to this project and whom I haven’t already mentioned includes Mariam Aboubakrine, Payam Akhavan, Jennifer Allison, Abdoulahi Attayoub, Nick Barber, Chris Bavitz, Adelle Blackett, Josefina Buschmann Mardones, Emily Chow Bluck, Matthew Canfield, Gabriella Coleman, Alonso Espinosa-Domínguez, Henk van Ess, Lindsay Freeman, Mark Goodale, John Hall, Eliot Higgins, Bob Hitchcock, Ian Kalman, Stuart Kirsch, Arthur Kleinman, Alexa Koenig, Michele Lamont, Gaetano Mangiameli, Félim McMahon, Chukwubuikem Nnebe, Pierre Peraldi-Mittelette, René Provost, Tobias Rees, Annelise Riles, Sally Merry, Sally Falk Moore, Colin Samson, Niels Schia, Nicole Rigillo, Brad Samuels, Christiaan Triebert, Bertram Turner, Noah Weisbord, Richard Wilson, and Olaf Zenker. To those who find their name missing from this list, it means you contributed in some way without my acknowledgment, which puts me even more in your debt.

Finally, saving the best for last, Sarah Federman was with me every step of the way through this project, offering inspiration, insight, patience, photographs, and boundless, infectious enthusiasm for life.


1. Zweig, 1998, Sternstunden der Menschheit, 153–76.

2. It is this very use of instruments of surveillance and data mining that leads me to prefer the term information technologies (ITs) rather than information and communications technologies (ICTs) throughout this book. The most significant aspects of acts of communication have become the informational purposes they serve: the repurposed data points processed by AI-driven analytics, beyond the reckoning of the media user and the particular messages they convey.

3. Zuboff, 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.