In the world of human rights, spotlighting war criminals to call the world’s attention to their crimes has proven to be highly effective for combating human rights abuses. The organization Human Rights Watch—which was founded with this aim in mind—learned long ago that even in regions where war criminals openly boast of their crimes in their local communities, when you publicize their actions for all the world to see, they suddenly behave very differently. Unfortunately, a crime has to be committed before this kind of action can be taken—which means by then, there are already victims. But on Wednesday, Google joined the United Nations, Harvard University, and an organization called Not on Our Watch (co-founded by George Clooney) to launch a project that will use satellites to monitor Sudan to prevent war crimes from happening in the first place.
The Satellite Sentinel Project will use satellites to capture images that the UN and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will study for evidence of state-sponsored violence, such as mass movements of people, village destruction, and other indications of violence. Currently, the satellite images take some two weeks to retrieve, but the project hopes to speed up that wait time to no more than 36 hours. The project was launched with the upcoming January 9 referendum, in which southern Sudan will likely vote to secede from northern Sudan. With less than two weeks until the momentous vote, many international observers are worried that the country is particularly vulnerable to renewed violence at this moment.
The images that the satellites capture will be made public immediately, the hope being that the government in Khartoum will be pressured to respect the people’s right to vote. Reports are already emerging, however, that the government is funding militia groups opposed to independence.
So what role is Google playing in this project? Google’s Map Maker technology will be combined with the satellite imagery and field reports to pinpoint the exact locations of violence in Sudan. Users can select from a regular map, a terrain map that shows the country’s mountainous regions, a hybrid map to show street names, or a Google Earth map.
"Passing over Sudan at any given time are perhaps a dozen commercial satellites that have high resolution images available for purchase. The cost barrier has been the key factor that has limited the effective use of satellite imagery analysis in the human rights field," said Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project, an organization dedicated to preventing and eliminating genocide. "War criminals thrive in the dark. They behave differently when you shine a media spotlight on them, when you give them notice that satellite imagery can be quickly shared with the world. This is an open source public platform for waging peace and this transforms anti-war efforts from now on."
The Satellite Sentinel Project was initiated by actor George Clooney, who co-founded the humanitarian assistance organization Not on Our Watch with Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, David Pressman, and Jerry Weintraub. In a message from George Clooney and John Prendergast, who leads the Enough Project, the two wrote on the Satellite Sentinel website: “We were late to Rwanda. We were late to the Congo. We were late to Darfur. There is no time to wait. With your support, we will swiftly call the world to witness and respond. We aim to provide an ever more effective early-warning system: better, faster visual evidence and on-the-ground reporting of human rights concerns to facilitate better, faster responses. This is why we have launched the Satellite Sentinel Project. There has never been a sustained effort to systematically monitor potential hot spots and threats to human security, in near real-time, with the aim of heading off humanitarian disaster and war crimes before they occur.”