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Satellites, Mass Media and Genocide Prevention: Are Tech Advances Leading to Preventative Results on the Ground?


AIThe proliferation of satellite imaging technology within the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention in recent years has been a game changer by expanding the toolkit used for raising awareness and bolstering advocacy efforts. Never before have NGOs, governments and advocates been able to access previously inaccessible areas (Darfur, Syria) in order to establish visual certainty of crimes against humanity and mass atrocities. More specifically, these gains in technological capacity to monitor hot spots have resulted in the reduced ability of governments to operate in shadows and darkness that so often enable mass atrocity crimes. Many see the growth of this technology as a means of leveling the playing field between the victims and perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Given the fact that the use of geo-spatial technology to monitor atrocities is rather inchoate, how much leveling occurs is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the growth of such technology represents a hopeful addition to the variety of options that the international community can explore to prevent or at least mitigate conflicts, mass atrocities and genocide.

One of the first initiatives of this kind was spearheaded by the United States Holocaust Museum and Google, who partnered together using Google Earth, to create the USHM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative. Through utilizing the revolutionary visual capabilities of Google Earth, the USHM saw an unprecedented opportunity to help the international community better view the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Along with on the ground data and photographs from local advocates, the UN and the U.S. Department of State, Google and the USHM were able to offer a harrowing picture of the extent of destruction and loss that had occurred in Darfur. The impact of this initiative was profound, and at the time, helped ordinary citizens envision what a genocide looks like. Many also hoped it would create an accessible record of abuses that may support accountability and dissuade potential crimes (not only in Darfur but other situations). But USHM’s datasets and maps are currently outdated and do not reflect present-day Sudanese military movements that may indicate a potential for mass atrocities. While USHM’s mapping initiative is useful in demonstrating what genocide looks like, its current operational utility and power to influence is hampered from the lack of a sustained mapping program (as its data is current to only 2009).

sat2Also leading the way was Amnesty International’s Eyes On Darfur project, which used the power of high-resolution satellite imagery to deliver irrefutable proof of the atrocities committed in Darfur. Amnesty’s Eyes On Darfur broke new ground by creating the technological capacity to allow people around the world to literally “watch over” specific villages in Darfur using commercially available satellite imagery. In particular, a recent report on the ongoing village razing by Sudanese troops in Blue Nile state utilized DigitalGlobe satellites to provide irrefutable proof of blatant attacks against civilian populations. Although the Eyes on Darfur Project was discontinued, Amnesty’s use of satellite imagery has continued with its Science for Human Rights Initiative. This ongoing project leverages geospatial technologies like satellite imagery for human rights monitoring and conflict prevention. Amnesty believes that “these new tools allow us to gain access to previously inaccessible conflict zones, provide compelling visual evidence and present information in a new and engaging way, all of which assists our activists in their campaigning efforts.”

Another important aspect of this emerging tool is that it helps minimize impunity for crimes against humanity by providing permanent and broadly accessible data for use by the international justice system. In 2006, Amnesty International USA partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to record hard evidence of housing demolitions in Zimbabwe. The data collected through this project was featured in a 2006 report that was used during litigation in the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.  Amnesty’s initiatives have also branched into the Syrian civil war with the Eyes on Syria project. Furthermore, AI has used satellites to document ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, war crimes in Sri Lanka and illegal torture camps in North Korea. While it’s likely true that this burgeoning technological capacity won’t be able prevent civilian deaths on a massive scale in its current form, its ability to document and corroborate crimes and enhance the capabilities of international justice systems is very real.

sent_satPerhaps most emblematic of the growing capacity to influence the international community through satellite imaging is the Satellite Sentinel Project. This initiative is the first sustained public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hot spots and threats to human security in near real-time. With satellite imagery capabilities supplied from tech-firm DigitalGlobe, the Sentinel Project is able to provide the international community with a constant stream of images from conflict zones in Sudan. By using networks of informants and local-activists on the ground, the Project is able to locate hot spots and areas where potential crimes have been committed. According to the Enough Project’s Akshaya Kumar and John Prendergast, images from the Sentinel Project “have allowed us to secure proof of mass graves, the deliberate burning of at least 292 square miles of farms and grasslands and the destruction of 26 civilian villages in Sudan’s South Kordofan state and 16 villages in Blue Nile state.”

The Sentinel Project has achieved more than just proving atrocities occurred—it predicted how a Sudanese invasion of Abyei in 2011 would occur, all the way down to the specific road Sudanese troops used. It has also been cited as evidence in the International Criminal Court investigation of recent alleged crimes in Sudan. The predictive and early warning capacities of the Satellite Sentinel Project has moved the ball down the court in terms of the impact satellite technologies can have in preventing how atrocities may unfold. Their close relationship with the Enough Project allows them to funnel information to an established advocacy group that can use it to pressure policymakers to act. According to Jonathan Hutson of Enough, “what’s transformative is that we can share high-resolution commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, so that you can see the same information that lands on the president’s desk during his daily Sudan briefings.” Having firmly establish roots in the DC policy circles, the Enough Project can use this satellite data to not only provide the public with similar data that arrives on the President’s desk, but to deliver it to decision-makers and administration officials who posses the political/ military power to halt atrocities. Such is a model of mass atrocity advocacy that is worth replicating and building upon.

While the advances in technological capacity to monitor genocide and mass atrocities are indeed groundbreaking, there remains much more to be seen in translating this newfound power to demonstrable results. AIPR Academic Programs Director and Cohen Professor for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, Dr. James Waller, claimed that with these technologies the world can no longer use a lack of information as an excuse for inaction. “So now the issue is going to be can we take that information and translate it into action,” said Waller.

sat1Experience shows how these new tools are not fail-safe. Late last year, Amnesty heavily relied upon boots-on-the-ground information gathering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the M23, an armed rebel group, was attacking villages. Why? The area was prone to thunderstorms and about 90 percent of the images they received from satellites were obscured by clouds. Gaining access to high-quality satellite imaging is also incredibly expensive, especially for an NGO community constantly struggling for funding. It also takes time to accurately analyze satellite images—a fact that limits the ability to access real-time data and respond to atrocities occurring in quickly developing situations.

While satellite technology certainly helps advocate for action in the face of mass atrocities, they are no guarantee in halting such crimes. The Eyes on Darfur Project and the USHM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative ran for several years, yet crimes against civilian populations occured unabated in Blue Nile state and Darfur. Even with the recent warning of a new Sudanese offensive in South Kordofan by the Satellite Sentinel Project, the ability of these advocacy efforts to prevent civilian deaths on the ground (on a large-scale) hasn’t been realized. One potent criticism is that there are many separate satellite initiatives being launched simultaneously without any broader coordination or harmonization of efforts. On the advocacy side of the equation, there could also be a greater effort to coordinate the pressuring of relevant power brokers with the latest evidence of potential atrocities.

The transformative capabilities of using satellites in the genocide prevention community should be seen as an essential new medium for watching governments and monitoring potential atrocity crimes. Despite the limitations of such technologies, we should be enthusiastic about the possibilities they present for the future of the mass atrocity prevention and advocacy community. With high-quality satellite imagery, the prevention community can better push governments and the UN to act in anticipation of atrocity situations. But the technology alone is not a deterrent. As Patrick Phillipe Meier noted on his forward-thinking iRevolution blog, “the use of surveillance was always coupled to the threat of punishment for deviant acts.” So is high-quality satellite imagery enough of a deterrent to dissuade atrocity crimes based on the real threat of punishment from the international community? Official state actors haven’t made it publicly clear that punishments will be carried out based on satellite imagery proving past or present atrocity crimes. Yet this is essential for creating an effective deterrent.

darfur1Although evidence provided from satellite imagery is increasingly used in courts as evidence, all one needs to do is look at Darfur to realize how effective this threat of punishment has been. For the USIP’s Matthew Levinger, early warning systems employing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology “may have the greatest value not for public advocacy movements but rather for policy practitioners charged with designing and implementing responses to emerging threats.” In its present form, such technology is better positioned to help populations in conflict zones coordinate defensive or evasive strategies against threats of atrocities. A good example of the possibilities for future platforms is Invisible Children’s LRA Crisis Tracker, which, although relying more on social media and cloud computing software, is helpful in issuing warnings to communities in danger.

Although the benefits of such technology in recent years are as undeniable as the evidence they seek to publicize, there remains a ways to go in reaching a point where satellite imaging can consistently and effectively halt genocide and mass atrocities before they start. Ultimately technology can’t create political will, only people can.

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