In a recent Foreign Policy article on the recent release by WikiLeaks of documents pertaining to the U.S. war in Afghanistan , Charli Carpenter, author of Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond, argues that WikiLeaks tools actually have enormous potential to save civilian lives in conflict zones — if standards can be created to use them properly.
Carpenter cites the release by WikiLeaks of video footage showing the apparent shooting of wounded non combatants by an Apache helicopter crew in Iraq. This, Carpenter suggests, “adds real value to the international regime governing the behavior of soldiers in wartime by promoting precisely the sort of accountability that the Geneva Conventions require but military culture tends to discourage.” She continues writing, “WikiLeaks could provide a solution — a reporting mechanism through which individual soldiers could report specific war crimes without fear of retribution.”
However, Carpenter also cautions that without any ethical or journalistic standards in place, WikiLeaks also risks not only undermining its mission but also risking further humiliation and pain for victims of war. Carpenter calls upon WikiLeaks to have more targeted release of documents, writing, “Imagine the potential of a more targeted approach — if WikiLeaks specialized only in receiving and publicizing reports of specific war crimes submitted by troops in the field. Instead of dumping 90,000 documents into the public domain and letting the chips fall where they may, the organization would serve as a conduit through which to reveal specific events that militaries might otherwise be tempted to cover up.”
Finally, WikiLeaks also needs to “place standards for how best to minimize collateral damage to the victims of war crimes.” The identities of Abu Ghraib torture victims or Bosnian women who had been raped were not carefully protected by journalists. Carpenter concludes by contending,
If WikiLeaks were to take the lead in developing best practices in this area, leveraging its information technology to balance truth-telling with the protection of victims and sources, it would set a standard that all journalists could follow.
Assange’s indiscriminate approach may have caused undue collateral damage this time around, the extent of which might never be known. But this doesn’t mean that the weapons of his trade should be banned or written off altogether. A more targeted whistle-blowing architecture of this type could save civilian lives in warfare — which is the whole point, after all.