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Sentinel Project Uses Satellite Images To Monitor, Perhaps Deter, Humanitarian Abuses

  • Richard Solash

American actor George Clooney speaks about south Sudan's secession referendum during an interview with AFP in Juba on the eve of the vote. Clooney, who spearheaded the initiative, has described the satellite cameras as “antigenocide paparazzi.”

American actor George Clooney speaks about south Sudan's secession referendum during an interview with AFP in Juba on the eve of the vote. Clooney, who spearheaded the initiative, has described the satellite cameras as “antigenocide paparazzi.”

People act differently when they are being watched. It’s a fact that authoritarian regimes have long exploited to suppress dissent. But watchfulness can also work to the good and perhaps even stop atrocities.

That’s the premise behind the Satellite Sentinel Project, a collaboration between Google, the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and celebrity-backed NGOs.

The project’s goal is to help deter any violence related to the January 9 referendum in southern Sudan, when people are voting on whether the region should split from the rest of the nation.

Given the two-decade long civil war it fought against the central government in Khartoum, which only ended in 2005, observers expect the south to vote for independence. Less certain is whether Khartoum will accept the result and allow the birth of the world's newest country.

For the voting, the Sentinel project will use private satellites to track any troop buildup or movement that could be a sign of impending violence. This data, along with the locations of burned villages and other indicators of trouble, will be mapped, allowing a pattern to emerge that could help stop further violence.

'Antigenocide Paparazzi'

Supporters hope that the publicity that has surrounded the initiative will itself be a deterrent by making would-be perpetrators aware that the world is watching via the project’s website.

The American actor George Clooney, who spearheaded the initiative, has described the satellite cameras as “antigenocide paparazzi” that will get in the face of would-be offenders.

Patrick Meier is co-founder of the Crisis Mapping Project at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, whose team is now crunching satellite data from Sudan.

"Satellite imagery before Google Earth had an almost exclusive, military connotation," Meier says. "Now it's demystified. I think what we're seeing then is going from this kind of state-centric, proprietary, extremely expensive technology that then is classified and only limited to a few individuals to a more open-source, open-data, very public, nonstate approach to employing and leveraging these technologies, in a way, for some of the same ends -- to really monitor and do surveying and [derive] in some form or another some accountability."
A satellite image covering Tamarsheni in South Ossetia taken on August 19, 2008. Damage is apparent, as the image shows that the roofs of buildings have collapsed, exposing interior walls. © 2008 ImageSat/analysis by AAAS.

Governments have used satellite imaging for decades to spy on other countries, but the first high resolution satellite for commercial purposes was only launched in 1999. Their images offer less detail than aerial photos, but as they soar through space recording what they see miles below, no one on the ground is the wiser.

Only within the last few years have enough of the satellites become operational to enable active, public monitoring of live crises. Six of the satellites currently hover above Earth, owned by private satellite imaging companies DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, and ImageSat International. UNOSAT, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and others analyze the images and make them available to NGOs and the public.

Geographical Scope Of Violence

Amnesty International has been at the forefront of using satellites images in its monitoring activities, including in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. The group says satellite imagery confirmed reports from the ground that more than 100 civilian homes were shelled by Georgian forces in the initial bombardment of Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

Satellite images can also, importantly, corroborate data obtained by other methods.

"What they're doing does add more tension, does add more data, more evidence on a situation that I think, all things considered, is a very good thing," Meier says. "I think the idea here is to look at this as an ecosystem and the Sentinel Project, for example, as one node in this ecosystem, complementing other efforts to try to hold actors accountable."

Satellite images of southern Kyrgyzstan after last June’s ethnic clashes were used to measure the geographical scope of violence. They identified populations at risk and in a number of cases spotted “SOS” signs on roads and in fields.

Lars Bromley, a satellite imagery analyst for the UN’s Satellite Applications Program, says the satellite images of Kyrgyzstan provided a bigger picture of the situation than even reporters on the scene could.

"[Kyrgyzstan] was a case where you had media on the ground providing some information, but the question of the scale of the violence that was going on was relatively unknown," Bromley says. "And that's where the imagery becomes quite helpful, when you can see it's not just the one neighborhood that a reporter is doing a report from, but it's multiple neighborhoods across a city."

The idea of being able to prevent genocide or large attacks by spotting evidence of the gathering storm before it happens is exciting stuff but also “incredibly ambitious,” says Meier. That’s because satellites can’t provide a live stream of what they’re seeing; images will take between eight and 24 hours to process -- enough time to launch a major attack or raze several villages.

Technical constraints could also make it hard to determine the sequence and causality of events in low-level skirmishes. And if would-be perpetrators of violence are unaware they're being monitored, the deterrent effect is canceled out.

'No One Wants To Believe The Worst'

Satellite imaging might be unable to stop violence before it happens, but it could be effective in containing it -- especially in areas that are largely inaccessible.

"In remote areas, what you often see happening is that nobody wants to believe the worst," Bromley says. "So if there are reports of violence in a remote area, everyone wants to wait until they have definite verification before they act on that information. And that's where the imagery can come in and provide that verification, before, say, a small conflict becomes a much larger conflict."

Amnesty International’s “Eyes On Darfur” initiative, launched in 2007 in another conflict-riven part of Sudan, is generally credited for breaking ground on that use of the technology. The NGO says images from the project were successful in helping to deter further human rights violations.

The Satellite Sentinel Project is hoping for similar success in southern Sudan.

But if violence does indeed occur and satellites document it, the story is still far from over.

Meier says the next step will be using satellite imagery as evidence in proceedings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It’s an idea still in its infancy, but one that human rights activists can be hopeful about.

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