A human rights project using satellite imagery that the general public can access is being launched tomorrow to help deter a resumption of war between north and south Sudan linked to a crucial referendum in January.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which is backed by American actor George Clooney, combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google's Map Maker technology to monitor the area marking the boundary between and the nation of Sudan and Southern Sudan, which is expected to become Africa's 55th country, following the voting that begins on 9 January.
"There used to be a bumper sticker that said, 'What if they threw a war and nobody came?' said Jonathan Hutson, director of communications for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group. "That's been rewritten: 'What if they threw a war and everybody came to stop it?' That's the power of crowd-sourcing information, using public technology platforms and leading edge advocacy for waging peace."
Commercial satellites passing over the border areas between north and south Sudan will be able to capture images of possible troop movements and build ups, potential attacks on villages, the movement of displaced people, or other possible threats to civilians, Hutson said. The project aims to provide an early warning system to focus world attention and generate rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns.
"The launch of this project puts all parties on notice that they can be held accountable for their obligations under international human rights law as well as [Sudan's] Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005," Hutson told allAfrica. "The imagery will be out there for all the world to see and respond. This is public information from commercial satellites that will be published on open-source platforms and analyzed in a neutral way to hold all parties accountable."
Southern Sudanese armies fought a decades-long war against northern domination that claimed more than two million lives. The 2005 peace accord provided for a power-sharing arrangement leading to a referendum on self-determination for the oil-rich South. The voting will take place over five days in early January. The north, which has historically benefited from oil located largely in the south, has been hostile to southern independence, and there are fears that one of the world's longest and bloodiest conflicts could re-ignite over the poll.
The Sentinel Project is a collaboration between Not On Our Watch, the Enough Project, UNOSAT (the United Nations UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Google, and Internet strategy and development firm Trellon, LLC. The Enough Project, co-founded in 2007 by Africa experts Gayle Smith and John Prendergast, contributes field reports, provides policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch, puts pressure on policymakers by urging the public to act. Not On Our Watch is a human rights organization co-founded by Clooney.
Hutson said there were a few proofs of concept using satellite imagery that helped inspire the Satellite Sentinel Project. Those included Amnesty International's Eyes on Darfur project, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Crisis in Darfur project, and use of satellite images by Physicians for Human Rights and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to gather evidence of mass grave tampering in Afghanistan.
But Hutson said the Sentinel Project is the first to use sustained, public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential conflicts and threats to security along a border, within 24-36 hours of their occurrence.
"Up until now, projects have documented mass atrocities after the fact. This visionary project aims to deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance," he said. "The project offers an open source, anti-war platform to observe in near real time troop buildups and movements, and potential war crimes, and gather evidence if necessary that can be presented at the International Criminal Court."
A deterrent to using satellite images in the past has been the expense of commercial satellite images, which can cost about U.S.$2,500 per image. Not On Our Watch has funded a U.S.$750,000 six-month start-up phase of the Sentinel Project.
For the project, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will provide system-wide research and lead the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that contextualizes the satellite imagery. UNOSAT leads the collection and analysis of the images and collaborates with Google and Trellon to design the web platform for the public to easily access the images and reports.
"The imagery tends to be worthless if no one looks at it - if no one can make use of it," Lars Bromley, an analyst at UNOSAT told allAfrica. "Once you get it out there and built into a site like this, that's really where it's getting exciting. Finally all these elements are starting to come together, where we are able to proactively address some of these issues instead of just documenting it after the fact."
The Satellite Sentinel Project will be available on December 29 at www.satsentinel.org. The aim of the project's funder, Not On Our Watch - co-founded by Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman, and Jerry Weintraub - is to focus global attention and resources toward putting an end to mass atrocities around the world.
Hutson said one goal of the project is to teach the world best practices in using commercially available satellite imagery along with crowd-sourced mapping tools to provide better, faster responses. These could be responses to potential human rights abuses, conflicts, humanitarian crises, or natural disasters, he said.
"More simply put, we're leveraging technology 3.0 with stronger, better satellite imagery to create better, faster responses," he said. "Now the crisis at hand is in Sudan. But this project, we hope, will inspire other efforts around the world."