2020 Global Citizenship Review

Chains of evidence

A migrant carries her belongings after a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesvos, Greece. © Elias Marcou/Reuters
A migrant carries her belongings after a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesvos, Greece. © Elias Marcou/Reuters

Chains of evidence

We analyze chain-of-custody evidentiary rules and standards before international criminal tribunals

International criminal tribunals prosecute the world’s most heinous crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Increasingly, evidence that can be used in these cases is being collected by civil society organizations and other third parties.  Preserving evidence collected from victims and witnesses has become even more important today with the increased accessibility of electronic recording devices, like smartphones. However, third parties must maintain an accurate and complete record of the chain of custody of evidence—digital or otherwise—to ensure that evidence is admissible in a trial, and to ensure that such evidence retains as much legal weight as possible. 

The Public International Law & Policy Group helps NGOs collect crucial evidence of atrocities

To support the work of long-time pro bono client the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), a team of six associates led by New York partner Damien Nyer researched and analyzed chain-of-custody evidentiary standards and related rules governing the admissibility of testimonial and other documentation for 13 international, ad hoc and hybrid tribunals. 

Our lawyers provided PILPG with a synthesis of the findings, a detailed overview of tribunal standards for the admission of evidence, and suggestions and recommendations to improve chain-of-custody practices. In the absence of international standards or guidelines, these recommendations can assist PILPG’s civil society clients in collecting evidence of atrocities. Our analysis will also help PILPG develop a secure online database to boost chain-of-custody integrity digitally.  

Failure in the chain of custody can be catastrophic

“The circumstances around collecting this type of evidence are often challenging, with heightened emotions and already traumatized eyewitnesses,” said Damien. “Further, hearsay and secondhand accounts may be the only sources of information about an incident, so it is important these be collected in a way that ensures the most probative value. The impact of a failure in the chain of custody could be catastrophic. We were happy to help PILPG in strengthening this process, and ultimately boost access to justice for some of the world’s most vulnerable groups.”

Our team had experience at hybrid tribunals and the ICC

The international team from New York, Chicago and Paris mobilized quickly, tapping into our Firm’s global network to access and analyze sometimes hard-to-find information around the world. But more than that, we tapped into our people’s passion for human rights law and improving access to justice. Associates Viviana Méndez and Allyson Reynolds in New York, who worked on the project, have both studied international human rights law, have had experience working and interning at a hybrid tribunal and the International Criminal Court (ICC), respectively, and chose to join us, in part, because our Global Pro Bono Practice offered the opportunity to continue this type of work.