Group uses satellite technology to track war crimes in Sudan
Published: Monday, October 17, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 02:10
When sophomore Ben Wang signed up for a summer internship as a data collection and analysis intern at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), he did not expect to discover what the group believes could be a war crime.
SSP was launched last fall by George Clooney and the Enough Project co−Founder John Prendergast. It uses satellite imagery, Google's Map Maker technology and field reports from humanitarian aid groups to monitor and deter instances of war crimes and mass atrocities along the border region between North and South Sudan.
Members of the project last night delivered a lecture, sponsored by the International Relations Program Director's Leadership Council, to Tufts students on the role of crisis mapping in Sudan's ongoing conflict.
"The world is different because of the forces satellite imagery represents," SSP Director of Operations Nathaniel Raymond said. "It represents you, your Mac, your iPhone, Facebook. It represents a different way of being in the world that has spread like fires everywhere in Syria, Egypt and Burma. The world is not the same."
SSP's collaborators include Not On Our Watch, the Enough Project, Google, DigitalGlobe, Trellon, LLC and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. The project concluded its six−month pilot phase in June 2011.
SSP monitors the regions of Abyie, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State that were left unresolved in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement/Army and continue to be sites of violence since South Sudan's declaration of independence last July, Raymond said.
"What has happened since then has been all our worst fears manifest," Raymond said, referring to alleged mass killings by North Sudan's army of civilians living in the disputed regions.
From its office in Harvard, SSP creates a near−real time record of Sudanese troop deployments and population movements over time, allowing it to provide early warnings for when internal displacement, razing of civilian infrastructures or mass atrocities are likely to occur, Raymond said.
As it monitors the region, SSP is able to build up a database of archived intelligence that can be used in the future to hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The project also provides the media with real−time information about attacks as they occur, which can be easily transmitted via social media and used to pressure policymakers, Raymond said.
"We wanted to create a radically new way of displaying that data," he said. "So its something you can Tweet, something you can post on Facebook...something you can place in front of Congress and say, ‘This is what's happening.'"
As SSP workers receive intelligence from actors on the ground in Sudan, they attempt to locate potential "hot spots" via satellite imagery to give a macro−view of the event and track patterns in population and troop movements that could eventually point to sites of mass killings, Raymond explained.
"Looking at these conflicts from the outside ... can be disempowering because it seems as if you're up against a force of evil," Raymond said. "But we see it as a phenomenon like cancer; something you can decode, analyze, and diagnose."
Using this technology, SSP has documented the alleged cover−up of mass graves in the Kadugli region of Sudan that occurred in late June. The group was able to capture images that it believes are collections of body bags that seem to have been buried and then placed under a water tower, a discovery Wang has helped detect.
"What we saw may not constitute a war crime," Raymond said. "It's not a war crime to move body bags. It's not a war crime to bury bodies. But it is a war crime to conceal a war crime."
These satellite images are consistent with claims by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that 7,000 internally displaced persons had gone missing at approximately the same time, Raymond said.
By detecting and documenting these patterns over a long period of time, SSP hopes to create an "architecture of liability" with which to hold potential human rights abusers accountable, Raymond said.
"The goal is to demand accountability, not only for the perpetrators, but for the international community that has a responsibility to protect these individuals," Raymond said.
SSP's reports must be confirmed by several sources before they are made public, Raymond said.
The power of this technology lies in its ability to save the lives of Sudanese caught in the conflict, who do not have access to the type intelligence that floods SSP's news feeds.
"The most vulnerable people in the world don't have iPhones or Macs," Raymond said. "The type of intelligence we have is exponentially higher than people who are in Sudan [have]."
Wang added that those with advanced technological means have an obligation to use it to protect vulnerable populations.
"Our generation, growing up with this technology that we take for granted, has a social responsibility to use [technology] to help others that don't have it because it doesn't only affect their livelihoods — it's a matter of life and death for some people," Wang said. "We need to step out of the box and do something with the technology we are given."