Figure 1 Porta Farm, Zimbabwe before image, taken June 22, 2002.

Zimbabwe & Sudan

Towards a Human Rights Observing System

Lars Bromley
Program Associate
Office of International Initiatives
American Association for the
Advancement of Science
Washington, D.C.

Developments within the remote sensing and geospatial technologies fields have enabled human rights organizations more effectively to investigate, monitor and contest atrocities and other human rights violations around the world. Notably, the establishment of a constellation of high-resolution observation platforms are allowing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the ability to detect and respond to human rights violations as never before. Properly equipped, NGOs can complement formal responses from national governments and international bodies to the full range of human rights violations.

Figure 2 Porta Farm after image, taken April 6, 2006.

Since late 2005, the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to explore and develop applications of geospatial technologies for human rights organizations. Over the next two years, AAAS will collaborate on this project with well-known entities such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, more specialized bodies such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and locally based and smaller organizations such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights or the Karen Human Rights Group (in Burma).

This complex array of NGOs work to address specific and broad trends of genocide, crimes against humanity, atrocities, persecution, and violation of the gamut of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Embodied in internationally adopted treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these rights also are addressed explicitly within such regional bodies as the African Union Human and Peoples Rights Court, but are often most effectively defined and protected—or denied—by national and local laws and institutions. Certain bodies such as the International Criminal Court address egregious atrocities when no other body will, though the majority of human rights work plays out at the local, national, and regional levels within a variety of legal and advocacy frameworks.

Figure 3 Killarney settlement in Zimbabwe shown before and after Operation Murambatsvina. Some of the more than 465 Killarney structures are visible in the before image (Aug. 22, 2004 – top), most of which are absent from the after image (Sept. 7, 2005).

In order to empower these organizations, AAAS is developing applications of geospatial technologies for human rights NGOs. Such groups often are engaged in some form of monitoring, advocacy, and litigation efforts designed to halt transgressions, or provide remedy or repatriation. Depressingly, human rights violations occur with absolute regularity and include the range of human barbarism: wholesale massacre, mass rape, torture, destruction of livelihoods, and terrorization of innocent peoples based on many possible ethnic, religious, economic, and/or historical reasons. More subtle political, economic, and environmental oppressions join the more heinous acts, including denying specific groups of people access to homes, farmland, fisheries, roads, power grids, and other state-funded infrastructure.

Human rights NGOs operate under constrained resources, and oftentimes face difficulties effectively accessing specific regions. Even in situations where information is relatively easy to obtain, verifying, reporting and separating fact from rumor, or relating rapidly developing local events to regional and global trends, present unique challenges. As such groups are focused overwhelmingly on seemingly desperate battles with minimal resources, they often simply cannot afford to evaluate advanced technologies. However, they often make stunningly effective use of technologies as they become more available, including cellular and satellite phones, digital cameras, and free or low-cost e-mail and Web hosting services.

Human rights NGOs, by forming alliances around common issues of concern and by communicating on a global scale, represent a distributed, decentralized information network. It is this characteristic that the AAAS project is initially seeking to exploit by connecting these organizations with assets such as commercial high-resolution imaging satellites. None of the work undertaken by AAAS is necessarily new in this regard; aspects have been pioneered in the past several years by national governments, intergovernmental organizations, and individuals such as Dr. Matthew McKinzie (Dr. McKinzie is a physicist and consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who undertook several studies based on high-resolution imagery for groups such as the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, as reported in Imaging Notes' Summer 2005 issue). The focus of the AAAS work is to make the use of high-resolution imaging satellites the norm within the international human rights community, furthering the creation of an integrated human rights observation system.

Figure 4 In the Chitungwiza settlement in Zimbabwe, backyard homes are visible in the left-hand image (Aug. 25, 2004), and are absent from the right-hand image (June 22, 2005). In addition, the possible marketplace seen in the before image is absent from the after image.

Applying High-Resolution Imaging to Human Rights Issues

Several high-resolution platforms are being exploited for human rights purposes, oftentimes providing imagery within a week of ordering. In addition to the use of these satellites for rapid image acquisition, the archives of previously collected imagery from each satellite can be enormously helpful to human rights work. Obviously, the longer a satellite has been imaging, the more potentially useful its archives can be. Likewise, the higher the resolution of the satellite, the more applications can be posited for it within ongoing human rights work. AAAS has found that satellites with resolutions of one meter or better are the best-suited for human rights work. Violations that affect infrastructure and housing, in particular, or that require large build-ups of military, paramilitary, and police forces, are especially visible to such satellites. At present, AAAS is drawing from several satellites:

  • IKONOS, operated by GeoEye (Dulles, Va.), has 1-m panchromatic and 4-m multispectral resolution. It has been in operation since 1999.
  • QuickBird, operated by Digital Globe (Longmont, Colo.), has 0.6-m panchromatic resolution and 3-m multispectral resolution. It has been in operation since 2001.
  • EROS-B, operated by ImageSat International, has 0.7-m panchromatic resolution. It was launched in 2006.

In addition to this array of satellites, other platforms are of possible use. AAAS has yet to test the Resurs DK-1, operated by Sovinformsputnik (Russia), which has 1-m panchromatic resolution. Likewise, the Korean KOMPSAT (1-m resolution), and the Indian IRS Cartosat-2 (1-m resolution), have not yet been utilized. Most important, two new highly anticipated satellites from DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, scheduled for operation in 2007, will provide 0.5-m resolution imagery to non-governmental clients.

Google Earth provides for many parts of the world, both urban and remote, a recently acquired QuickBird basemap. Users can upload GPS coordinates, e-mail waypoints acquired from work in the field and survey satphotos overlaid with annotations often supplied by local people, experiencing the situation on the ground.

Figure 5 Hatcliffe settlement before (May 14, 2004) and after (September 2, 2005)
Operation Murambatsvina, where more than 700 structures were removed.

Case Studies

To further its goals, AAAS undertakes focused activities in response to specific human rights violations in close partnership with human rights organizations. Such case studies allow AAAS staff to understand the challenges to be faced, the needs of the human rights community, and the impact of the imagery if and when it is delivered. Conversely, human rights organizations are exposed to the information needed for guiding image acquisition, to the complexities and challenges of operational use of imagery, and to the specific limitations of satellite imagery and related technologies.

Figure 6 Madoua settlement in eastern Chad, along the Chad/Sudan border. All structures
of this town were destroyed in the after image (November 4, 2006). Before image taken
March 2, 2006.

Since early 2006, AAAS has addressed several situations of concern to human rights organizations, including Zimbabwe and Darfur. Primary partners in this regard include Amnesty International, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, and other NGOs. In addition, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently produced Google Earth layers on Darfur with information from many sources. The project has been extremely well-received with specific attention from U.S. President George Bush. (Editor's note: See related story about Google Earth.)


In AAAS efforts regarding Zimbabwe, imagery was sought to document the 2005 home demolition campaign by the Government of Zimbabwe, Operation Murambatsvina (“Clean out the Trash”). Reporting was provided to AAAS regarding four specific towns where the homes of opposition supporters were destroyed. While Mugabe's government was not denying demolishing some un-permitted structures in a few areas, the scale of the devastation had not adequately been conveyed to the African Union or other bodies. AAAS staff worked to identify the demolished housing in the towns of Porta Farm, Hatcliffe, Chitungwiza, and Killarney.

While locating towns in many countries is as simple as finding a road atlas, in Zimbabwe—as in much of the world—finding locations is relatively difficult because of poorly mapped local areas. Further, the issue was complicated by the fact that Hatcliffe and Killarney shared town names with nearby and officially recognized towns. Only the demolitions in Chitungwiza proved easy to locate.

To locate the towns besides Chitungwiza, information from Amnesty International and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights was combined with place names from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency GeoNet Names database and with background imagery from the LandSat GeoCover product downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility at the University of Maryland. Using such data, simple maps of the areas around the cities of Harare and Bullawayo were created and e-mailed to partners. Using these maps, partners precisely identified the location of the former settlements, thus providing AAAS staff with the geographic coordinates. The town of Porta Farm was found with driving directions from Harare, allowing staff to locate the precise area on Google Earth.

Figure 7 Destroyed structures in Madoua, after the attack Nov. 4, 2006 (schematic of the 452 removed structures in Madoua).

With precise locations in-hand, AAAS staff searched for images that would document both the presence of the settlements prior to their June, 2005 demolition, and any later imagery that would show their absence. Luckily, the QuickBird satellite had acquired images for all areas, and only one new image of the Porta Farm area needed tasking. AAAS staff analyzed and evaluated the four image sets, producing a report detailing findings (see Figures 1-5).

Amnesty International then launched an advocacy campaign, with a report of their own including imagery samples provided by AAAS, a press release, and other activities. The result was unprecedented attention to the issue, with 24 hours of media interviews conducted by Amnesty staff in London. Further, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights submitted the imagery to the African Union as part of their case against the Government of Zimbabwe. That case has been recessed as the government tries to refute the validity of the imagery—a development that AAAS sees as promising.


The case of Darfur presents different characteristics and challenges as AAAS works closely with Amnesty International and others to document aspects of the conflict. AAAS uses most of the same tools as in the Zimbabwe case, but the huge scale of the conflict significantly alters the process.

Figure 8 Burned and Destroyed Homes in Bir Kedous, Chad.

Darfur is a vast, remote, and poorly mapped area, and the conflict dynamics and policies of the Government of Sudan make outside access and reporting extremely difficult. However, given the level of humanitarian interest in the area, a wide range of data products has been developed in recent years, including place names, roads, airfield locations, conflict events, extensive Google Earth layers, and more.

A key challenge is the variability found in town and place designations, both among different local peoples and among the differing nationalities providing humanitarian relief. Transliteration and transcription of place names morphs their spellings, and the same process among media and NGO reporting outlets causes significant difficulty in locating reported events. A custom “fuzzy” matching system using the Levenshtein Distance algorithm helps overcome some of this problem, along with a great deal of standard geographic research. AAAS staff therefore are presented with a classic data-mining experience. A great many place names are reviewed from U.N. and NGO reporting, and a small subset (about 30%) of these are located. Of this subset, an even smaller number has the before and after image pairs already available, identified as a key asset to advocacy work and, ideally, to future legal efforts.

Using this method, AAAS has produced compelling imagery of specific events in Darfur and eastern Chad, based on reporting from Amnesty International, the U.N., the media, and other sources. These imagery sets include Quickbird documentation of an initial cattle raid and subsequent destruction of Madoua, Chad (see Figures 6 and 7) in 2006, and likewise the town of Bir Kedouas, Chad (see Figures 8 and 9). Strikingly, an IKONOS imagery set reveals an area of South Darfur where every single one of the 41 villages within the “before” image footprint was razed prior to acquisition of the “after” image (see Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 9 Burned area of Bir Kedouas – The top image shows a sample set of homes, outbuildings, and fences in October 24, 2004. The bottom image shows the remains of those same homes and fenced areas on January 7, 2007, after the reported attack.


Figure 10 Locations of destroyed settlements in the Tigla region on Sept. 8, 2006.


Within the next few months, AAAS will seek to provide effective Web-based documentation for human rights organizations seeking to make use of high-resolution imagery, from Burma to Russia to New Orleans in the U.S. Subsequently, AAAS will continue to provide some services in that regard as staff members proceed to evaluate and explore other remote sensing and geospatial information solutions. At the same time, significant information provision on crisis areas from governmental, intergovernmental, and NGO sources, together with tools from major corporations such as Google and Microsoft, will enable unprecedented response to and mitigation of human rights violations. It is important that this emerging information distribution system develop in a manner that recognizes the disparities in information access around the world and seeks to capitalize on the full range of information technology resources being made available.


Note Figures 1-9 are QuickBird imagery from DigitalGlobe. Figures 10-11 are IKONOS imagery from GeoEye.

Editor's Note The newly announced GeoEye Foundation and separately, Spot Image's collaborative “Planet Action” are specifically designed to provide imagery for NGOs for human rights, climate change and education. See related stories: Planet Action Collaboration to Provide Climate Change Tools and Zooming in on Climate Change.













Figure 11 One of the villages in the Tigla area which was completely destroyed following attacks. Before image (top) is from September 30, 2004. After image is September 8, 2006.

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