A Canadian-Ukrainian in Kyiv – Part 1: Justice

I’ve been in Kyiv for over two months and still getting asked every day, what are you doing in a war zone? Well, it all began a year ago when Sadaf, a graduate student from the University of British Columbia, submitted her final report from her research internship Trusted Records in a Tapestry Approach.

Sadaf spent the summer researching the use of alternative credentials as evidence of identity and occupation /ownership of a particular home or piece of property. Over 80 million people on this planet have been displaced from their homes, land and property (HLP) with little or no evidence of their occupation or ownership. History shows that most refugees eventually return to their community, however, the likelihood of receiving compensation for a destroyed or damaged home is negligible.

A long road home

It can take decades for refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs) to return home to war affected regions like Syria, Yemen and now Ukraine because they simply don’t have the proper documents. Imagine fleeing as bombs are falling and trying to remember to grab your land title or rental agreement. These desperate people cross into another country often with no identity documents, or even intentionally destroy them so as not be identified by the secret police as they leave their embattled nation.

A solution to this problem was first proposed by Yuliya Panfil and her colleagues at New America, a land rights think-tank based in Washington D.C. In their report, The Credential Highway, they propose using a tapestry of alternative credentials to prove identity and occupation. For example, if you don’t have traditional identity documents, could you submit copies of credit card and utility bills in your name, delivered to a specific address as evidence of your identity and occupation? If you don’t have your land title but you have ten years of pictures of you and family in the same backyard enjoying the shade under the lemon tree as evidence?

Fortunately, the answer is yes, according to an area of law called Transitional Justice. Transitional Justice is a framework of laws and rules that apply to a situation in flux. For example, in the early 1990s at the end of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, there was no legitimate government left to administer the day to day activities of the nation. International experts jumped in and set up a ‘quick-and-dirty’ legal framework to deal with victim restitution and property rebuilding according to a mass claims process that relaxes normal judicial procedures and evidence requirements.

Justice for all

Transitional Justice makes allowances for missing or incomplete documentation of identity or occupation of property by allowing people to submit whatever evidence they have. Sometimes it could be pictures of the home and family, utility bills and internet search history, or even written and oral testimonies combined with satellite imagery.

The next question is, how can you collect all this information from millions of refugees and displaced people quickly and efficiently? This is very difficult and that is exactly where Sadaf’s report provided a solution. The current best-practice in documenting HLP claims is a glacial process with endless queues of victims sitting down with a handful of volunteers in a refugee camp with pen & paper. 

Who do you trust? 

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that refugees and IDPs generally don’t trust anyone, especially governments. After all, it was their own government or the government of an aggressor nation that destroyed their lives in the first place. Sadaf realized digital technology can provide the solution. However, relying on traditional account-based smartphone apps would not suffice. Not everyone can read or write, and nearly all apps require an email address or credit card number – two things very few refugees have. The displaced need a different kind of technology, and that is where we enter the equation.

My colleagues and I at the Peer Social Foundation have been working on a different approach to digital identity called Self-Attested Identity. The idea is that our identity is not determined by the fact that we have a passport, driver’s license or bank account. Who we are is a combination of different attributes that other people know to be true about us. For example, your neighbour knows who you are and where you live. Or when you order food from your favourite food delivery service, it arrives at the same address every time. 

Refugees and IDPs need a mobile, safe and anonymous way to submit HLP claims to NGOs. They also need a solution that allows alternative forms of evidence from a variety of sources. Your memories combined with a few of photos and a copy of your last utility bill, might be enough to help establish your identity and prove ownership of your home under Transitional Justice.

Supporting refugees and IDPs in the most difficult of circumstances is why I’m proud to be a Canadian in Kyiv in the middle of a war. Once Ukraine is victorious, we will be there to help people reclaim and rebuild their homes and lives. People helping people is the only way forward.