Satellites for Human Rights

Can They Stop Genocide?

Fig. 1

Porta Farm, Zimbabwe before the area was demolished, taken June 22, 2002. Images are part of a AAAS report that was previously published in the Summer 2007 issue of Imaging Notes, and are courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

Fig. 2

Porta Farm image after destruction, taken April 6, 2006. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

Fig. 3

Aerial reconnaissance imagery of Auschwitz showing the gas chambers and crematorium revealed in 1979, courtesy of National Archives, via Dino Brugioni.

This editorial is in response to the article, “Satellite Sentinel Project” from the Spring 2011 issue. Tim Brown is an imagery analyst and Senior Fellow at The opinions expressed here are solely his own. This information is accurate as of the date of this writing, June 9, 2011. Also see editorial by Dino Brugioni in the Spring 2007 issue, and the feature about human rights issues in Zimbabwe and Sudan in Summer 2007. These can easily be found by keyword search at

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – Plato

The Satellite Sentinel Project is the latest example of how the powerful tool of commercial satellite imagery, and the analysis that goes with it, can be used ( Previous efforts to use high-resolution, space-based imagery to raise awareness and document war crimes, while admirable, have yielded mixed results.

Overhead imagery in 1995 showing mass graves in Bosnia did little to stop the “ethnic cleansing” as it was taking place. Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, even showed at a hearing on Capitol Hill declassified photos of the disturbed earth in northern Bosnia that provided evidence of mass graves outside the one U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica. In the end, the U.S. and the European Community did not intervene until an estimated 200,000 people were killed – 8,000 in Srebrenica alone.

In 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the auspices of the Department of State, purchased commercial satellite imagery to document and to show the scale of violence taking place in the Darfur region of southern Sudan. The Amnesty International project Eyes on Darfur ( attempted to monitor the violence in Darfur, as well, in 2007. In May 2006, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a study using commercial satellite imagery showing destroyed villages in Zimbabwe. See Figures 1-2. Five years later, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe is still in power.

Tim Brown

By , Senior Fellow, Washington, D.C.,

In 2004, there was hesitancy in the U.S. even to use the word ‘genocide’ in reference to Sudan, as that word carried with it a legal requirement for governmental and moral action. Yet the word was used to describe what was going on in Darfur, and there was no real action. Four years later in 2009-10, the International Criminal Court issued the warrant for the arrest of Sudan-ese President Ahmad al Bashir on ten counts — for torture, rape, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Yet even today he is still in power.

If the recent arrest of the former Yugoslav military commander Ratko Mladic is any indication, it can take some time to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice. It was 16 years before Mladic, who orchestrated the slaughter of the 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, was caught. His lawyers are fighting on the grounds that he is too weak with a medical condition for trial. It may be years before the current perpetrators of war crimes and genocide in Sudan are captured and brought to justice, if indeed they ever are.

If anything can be deduced from the civil war and “ethnic cleansing” carried out against Muslim minorities of Bosnia and Kosovo by the Yugoslav leaders in the 1990s, it would be that there was a whole body of collateral information that crimes against humanity and genocide were taking place, yet the ability to detect and characterize those activities was not sufficient to move Europe and the West to act.

There are limits to what this technology can do. Hollywood has created unrealistic expectations among the public, policy makers and celebrities. The public has been fascinated ever since the words ‘spy satellite’ were first uttered in 1968 in the movie Ice Station Zebra, starring Rock Hudson. Since then, overhead imaging capabilities have been wildly exaggerated, especially in the movie Enemy of the State in 1998.

A Brief History Lesson

In 1979, famed CIA imagery analyst Dino Brugioni revealed the existence of aerial imagery of the Auschwitz death camp, accidentally captured on aerial strike camera film from allied bombers attacking the nearby I.G. Farben Plant, over thirty years earlier (see Figure 3). Since the 1979 article, there has grown an expectation that overhead imagery can be used to detect war crimes, and once detected, the war crimes will stop or be forced to stop, or at least the imagery could be used as part of the body of evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, faced off against his counterpart, Soviet representative Valerian Zorin in the Security Council, over the issue of the introduction of offensive ballistic missiles in Cuba. Aerial imagery depicting the construction of offensive ballistic missile bases was shown, to counter Soviet denials about the deployment. In the end, the U.S. imposed a “quarantine” – essentially a military blockade – of the island. The Soviets backed down, and the missiles were withdrawn. Overhead imagery, it seemed, won the day, forcing the Soviets to withdraw.

It did not hurt that the U.S. had an overwhelming nuclear superiority, or that there were conventional forces ready to strike Cuba militarily, with an invasion force of U.S. troops standing by, or that a fleet of U.S. naval vessels were ready to sink Soviet merchant vessels bound for Cuba. In addition, President Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw the U.S. medium-range ballistic missile from Turkey. So it was the threat of the use of force, along with covert negotiations, that ultimately caused the Soviets to change their minds. The overhead imagery was useful but not critical.

Setbacks in the Use of Imagery

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the high point in which overhead (aerial) imagery was credibly used to prove a point in foreign relations, and a high point as well in U.S. international credibility. Since then, using imagery has gradually lost its effectiveness.

In 1983, President Reagan displayed aerial imagery of military arms shipments and deployments in Nicaragua and Cuba to boost public support for the “Contras” and the overthrow of the Sandinista regime in Managua. The military buildup was non-nuclear in nature and not capable of directly threatening the United States.

A more recent example is when, in 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed a simulated vial of anthrax, and showed overhead imagery of activity suggesting ongoing Iraqi chemical and biological weapons activity. It later turned out that Iraq had neither a chemical nor a biological weapons program. The single Iraqi source code-named “Curveball” fabricated his story to West German intelligence in hopes that the U.S. would invade Iraq(1). The imagery and Powell’s personal credibility helped convince skeptics that a second Iraqi war was justified.

The fundamental question is whether documenting ongoing war crimes and genocide for later use in court has any effect on the behavior of perpetrators. So far, it doesn’t seem to.

Increased use of this type of “brief occasion of amazement,” as Carl Sagan said, combined with the increased cynicism of Americans and other people of the world, has dulled overhead imagery’s usefulness over time.


How much evidence is required to detect and demonstrate violence in significant enough levels to cause the International Community and the United Nations to act?

High-resolution overhead imagery is best used to detect, identify, and characterize activity in denied-access areas. Since there is an abundance of ”ground truth” of what is going on in Sudan, from journalists and non-governmental aid and human rights organizations showing dead bodies, burned villages, and people suffering in refugee camps, satellite imagery can do little more than provide a context to the imagery that is hard to get from the ground. Overhead imagery alone does not seem to move public opinion, nor does it cause the perpetrators to stop, nor the International Community and the United Nations to act.

The fundamental question is whether documenting ongoing war crimes and genocide for later use in court has any effect on the behavior of perpetrators. So far, it doesn’t seem to.

Deterring killing and genocide in the disputed regions of Sudan is a noble cause, but it is a daunting task to dedicate satellite imagery collection time to monitor an area larger than the state of Texas. At a speed of four miles per second, these satellites are pre-programmed to point and click at areas already identified by people on the ground reporting killing. Instead of satellites discovering new knowledge, they are more often than not used to illustrate what is already known.

Persistent staring (observation) from a variety of platforms such as commercial high-resolution imaging satellites, aerostat balloons, and unmanned drones is useful only with “boots on the ground.” International Peacekeepers are needed, with a mandate to protect life and property and to stop the violence. The Satellite Sentinel Project as currently envisioned does not have boots on the ground to go with it.

The goal of documenting violence, war crimes and genocide to prosecute is more attainable. This action is akin to crime scene investigators who show up after a murder has been committed to collect evidence and create a documentary chain of evidence to be used later in a trial. Using satellite imagery and analysis to document war crimes presumes that some of the perpetrators will be caught and brought to justice.

George Clooney and other celebrities have lent their good names and money to raise international awareness about the killing going on in Sudan(2). Mr. Clooney has actually been to refugee camps on the borders of Sudan enough times that his trips cannot be dismissed as mere photo-ops. He has provided substantial financial support and personal commitment to the Satellite Sentinel Project and has the support of other celebrities.

The satellite company DigitalGlobe has made available to the effort its constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites. Harvard University’s Humanitarian Initiative, the groups Not On Our Watch and Enough Project, co-founded by John Prendergast, along with Amnesty International, scholars, organizers, and activists, have made the violence, war crimes and genocide in Sudan hard to ignore. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), along with the International Criminal Court, which has handed down indictments, all send a strong message that war crimes and genocide in Sudan will not go unnoticed, and hopefully not unpunished.

The question is whether Mr. Clooney, the satellite companies, prosecutors, scholars, and human rights activists can raise public awareness to a sufficient level to pressure the U.S., the West, and the International Community to act in time to stop more violence in Sudan, or at least not to interfere in a U.N.-mandated peace enforcement. The answer lies in a highly complex international process requiring cooperation and commitment that, at this point, have not been possible.

Part of that complexity is that the Sudanese ethnic minorities occupy land where the government wants to drill oil to sell to countries like China. The current Sudanese government does not want to share profits with Southern Sudan, though they will have to, once the south is independent. Also, China holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and could veto any vote to send in troops.

In its present form, the Satellite Sentinel Project can actually do little to deter violence or stop aggression. To do that, governments, not satellite companies and celebrities, must act by putting troops on the ground and using force if necessary to stop the actions and deter further violence. Satellites watching genocide being committed and reporting after the fact is a relatively inexpensive proposition, but may also be ineffective. Whether the Satellite Sentinel Project can raise enough awareness to cause governments to act is an open question.

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