GIS Technology for Genocide Prevention

Matthew Levinger at USIP kindly shared a copy of his forthcoming publication on “Geographic Information Systems Technology as a Tool for Genocide Prevention.” The article will be published as part of the special issue of Space and Polity on “Geography and Genocide.”

The article considers the uses of virtual globes such as Google Earth for “stimulating more effective responses to emerging threats of genocide and mass atrocities.”

Matt draws on two case studies that utilize commercial satellite imagery to document the genocide in Darfur: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Crisis in Darfur project and  and Amnesty International  (AI) USA’s Eyes on Darfur initiative. (See also my previous post USHMM’s and AI’s initiative here and here).

Matt concludes that “GIS-based early warning systems may have the greatest value not for public advocacy movements but rather for policy practitioners charged with designing and implementing responses to emerging threats.  Such technology also has the potential to help endangered populations in conflict zones to organize timely and effective defensive action against threats of atrocities.”

John Prendergast, a senior African analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), predicted that the USHMM‘s project with Google Earth  would “bring a spotlight to a very dark corner of the earth, a torch that will indirectly help protect the victims.  It is David versus Goliath, and Google Earth just gave David a stone for his slingshot.”

I’m far from convinced. First of all, the USHMM‘s Google Earth layer is not updated so the information depicted is of no operational value.  Second, the Museum has only produced a Google Earth layer for every corner of the Earth. Third of all, drawing a correlation between virtual globes and the supposed “Global Panopticon” effect is difficult to prove.

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault reflects on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power.  He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells.  The “major effect of the Panopticon,” writes Foucault, is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”

According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”:

Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon.

Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.

Does high-resolution satellite imagery coupled with virtual globes lead to a reversal of Bentham’s Panopticon effect? That is, does this new medium enable the many to watch (and control) the few?

As Matt correctly notes vis-a-vis Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, “the use of surveillance was always coupled to the threat of punishment for deviant acts.” So while AI‘s advocacy efforts and those of the Museum‘s are important for keeping the issues in the public discourse, they are hardly acts of punishment.

Google Earth may very well have given David a stone for his slingshot; problem is, David doesn’t have a slingshot and his hands are most likely tied.

Patrick Philippe Meier

17 responses to “GIS Technology for Genocide Prevention

  1. Pingback: just open » GIS κατά γενοκτονίας

  2. Could you let us know when Matthew Levinger’s publication is available? I didn’t see it on the Space and Polity website.

  3. Good post with some legitimate questions and concerns raised.

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  7. The technology definitely brings with it the awareness of the injustice happening on our small planet.

    Does it promote action on our part?

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  10. In the movie Hotel Rowanda, one of the main characters kept telling a war lord about the watchful eye in the sky, and the war crimes trial that would be forthcoming. It didn’t end the genocide by any means, but seemed like a decent card to have up one’s sleeve. Of course, the story was dramatized a bit to become a movie, and hardly counts as an observation about what goes on in the world.

    I do agree with you; if the eye in the sky doesn’t factor into any sort of punishment for the people involved with genocides and other crimes against humanity, it’s a lot like the panopticon story, with that single guard having fallen asleep. The inmates never can tell whether they’re being watched … but after a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma where no one is punished, the smart ones will figure it out.

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