Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

Update: Heglig Crisis 2012, Border Clashes 2012, Invasion of Abyei 2012

The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:

“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago  by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty in 2002:

“The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”

If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.

So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”

According to Amnesty, the project “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally ‘watch over’ and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.

Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.

In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?

French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written 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. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the  outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?

There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).

If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.

As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”

This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in  “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.

US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this  hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.

The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.

How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.

p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.

27 responses to “Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

  1. Thanks Patrick. It is about using the power of the Internet. You are right about success measures. Is that your next post? How about we crowdsource/smartsource it?

    Ideas for the Social Media component (knowledge/sharing is power)
    Will their analytics/metrics be available?
    Pageviews by content, sub-sites by time/day/month
    Tweets – what is the hashtag for this site? Could our friends from TtT pull the data?
    Other social media – Facebook, blog posts (Swift River test)

    If we identify the baseline measures, then we can compare future attempts.

    Thanks for your post and happy holidays,

    Heather L

    • Thanks for your comment, Heather! I think the causal chain between satellite imagery and no conflict, or less than expected conflict is not possible to prove. Bashir will never admit (a la Estrada in the Philippines) that he backed down because of Clooney.

      Happy holidays to you!

  2. I agree with Heather the Social Media is powerful, it can change the world.

    Gingerbread Android

  3. Patrick: Excellent information on which I have little background. But I am now reading up. NIUSR and I support the conception and it will be interesting to see how the various elections will be shortly affected. It is a promising start and looking at the bright side, it could not make things WORSE so its a win win on the start of something that has a great chance to succeed. It also may be the helping hand that can make the UN a greater force of good. We will see how the new Secretary of the United Nations looks upon this satellite assistance. Press on, Lois Clark McCoy (lois hollywood) , Past President, NIUSR

  4. Jessica Heinzelman

    Great post, Patrick! I think you hit it on the head when you speak of the dependence on the existence/perception of a credible threat. I highly doubt that this critical ingredient will be present in Sudan to PREVENT conflict in and of itself for many of the same reasons you lay out (awareness of all parties, history of effective action, etc.) Question I’d have… UNOSAT is involved, but what is the plan for using the information on the ground? Are there lines of communication set up with UNMIS so that it the deterrent effect can be felt sooner rather than later?

    Either way, Satellite Sentinel Project has great potential the future. If the international community seizes upon this opportunity to prove its commitment to R2P (which has been shaky in the past, muddled by its terribly unclear definition and implementation challenges) and its ability to turn this particular type of evidence into action, it could have an incredible impact on future conflicts.

    I think it is fantastic that Clooney is taking this up (and not just because I adore the concept of the anti-genocide paparazzi). This kind of surveillance has proven nearly impossible in the past. The idea that the UN would have this kind of intelligence capability has met with tremendous resistance as it threatens to empower an organization that most sovereign nations would like to keep powerful enough to use as a scapegoat for responsibility, but not powerful enough to actually challenge their own power. I hope this effort can shake up this dynamic and lead to effective use of the technologies we have rather than get caught up in the finger pointing and inaction characteristic of the international community’s history with peace keeping.

    • Thanks Jess! My understanding is that UNOSAT is indeed in contact with some colleagues at UNMIS. But the latter are concerned about the involvement of one particular individual in the project. Best I leave it at that.

  5. Thanks for this Patrick…a few comments. As you know, and for full disclosure for your readers, I serve as Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for Sub-Saharan Africa.

    The Eyes on Darfur project you reference—which is more than a few years old now—was indeed a groundbreaking project, but a few corrections are in order. The Government of Chad ultimately dropped its objections to peacekeepers in the east of the country where hundreds of thousands of refugees were (and still are) at risk of banditry, rape, forcible recruitment, and violent death. That is correct.

    But it wasn’t because some satellite images a had been collected…it was a result of a tidal wave of public pressure, generated in no small part by tens of thousands of people taking action—writing letters and emails…making calls and even faxes. Knowing the weight of public opinion, and the eventual effects on interstate diplomacy, the Government of Chad dropped its objections at a critical moment in history. The vehicle for this call to action was the Eyes on Darfur site. That is, “Eyes on Darfur” brought people to a place to (virtually) witness the scale, scope, and magnitude of atrocities, and offered them opportunity to act, even if from five thousand miles away. The Chadian relent is a testament to the power of grassroots—not satellites.

    As for the “deterrent” effect of the EoD project, I think the extent to which you seem to characterize EoD as billed as a successful example of deterrence is overstated. Two notes on the non-selection of EoD protective sites for attack you mention: first, there have been three—not two—attacks on these protected sites, though one appears to have been internal to the community. Further, these communities remain up on the EoD project, flashing red, with background on the attacks…they were never removed for strategic reasons, but only failed to appear on the site as the imagery, analysis, and text information was being updated. Indeed, removing attacked sites would defeat the purpose of the project—to take a small sample of high risk communities, demonstrate their risk and their fate, as a representative sample of the fate of so many communities in Darfur.

    But as to the question of demonstrating effect, no one would claim that the simple fact that only 3 of 12 sites had been damaged over a few years would indicate a deterrent effect. Yes, it is factual to make the observation that 3 of 12 have been attacked, but because we live in a frequentist, probabilistic world, the appearance of success can be spurious or—just as likely—noise. What if—instead of 12 data points with time series and spatial attributes—we had thousands of “out of sample” points with which to run regressions, and make indisputable inferences about the effect of the EoD project? Or any advocacy efforts over the course of the last 6 years on ground conditions, whether they involved satellite imagery or not?

    In fact, we can. And when trying to answer questions as to the use and effect of these tools, we’d all be well advised to rely on data and valid causal inference. Darfur has been so heavily imaged by so many actors, and with existing counts of damaged and undamaged villages and communities (see: http://www.data.gov/raw/1201) that we can run regressions to determine the effect of any effort, EoD or otherwise, on ground conditions by controlling for potentially intervening variables. As for tracing the chain of command responsibility—what if a rigorous analysis showed that the Janjawid and other militia selected against those 12 villages for attack, disproportionately to others? Would we conclude that the Janjawid were reading Amnesty International statements or checking out the EoD website? No…but it would indicate that some other actor concerned with public affairs was identifying which villages were highest priority targets, and which were problematic.

    If some impact-assessing effort did do this rigorous analysis, what would be the value of releasing those results? Were it to demonstrate no measurable effect, there’d be little value in releasing those findings. That’s obvious.

    But what if just the opposite was true, and a cross-sectional time series analysis completed by AIUSA or others demonstrated a huge effect? A rational actor wouldn’t release those results either (fundraising benefit aside), as it would undermine the very effect sought. A rational perpetrator response—when told that he or she now and forever has their hands tied because they didn’t attack a given target—would be to do the opposite…act, in order to undermine—and in turn deter—the use of remote sensing by NGOs.

    In the end, the “power” of the panopticon is wholly dependent on political will, not the seeing eye of Amnesty International or any other group. The power of EoD and the new Sentinel project is derived from the ability and willingness of individuals to act, and leverage collective power.

    All of that said, deterrence is a key component of a functioning judicial system. And there is no arguing with the fact that the rapid expansion of the use of remote sensing by human rights watchdogs is changing the range of war crimes and crimes against humanity than may be perpetrated under the assumption of non-observation. Amnesty International has used remote sensing to document war crimes in the Georgia-Russia conflict. It has used it most recently to document likely war crimes in Kyrgyzstan, and a range of other monitoring functions. In fact, Amnesty has deployed remote sensing technologies so many times now, that we have a very good sense for anticipatory effects by actors on the ground. Some of the examples can be found at: http://www.aiusa.org/science.

    But the mere act of observation—the observer effects of quantum physics aside—changes nothing about the reality of our world.

    The deterrent power of satellites and other remote sensing tools in the hands of watchdogs will be leveraged only once those who would perpetrate crimes and atrocities fear being named, and fear their crimes documented. To that end, the simultaneous strengthening of the international justice system with an expansion of the monitoring capacity of watchdogs would appear to be an unmitigated good.

    • Wow Scott, this is brilliant and really informative. Thanks a million for taking the time to write this up.

      Chad – Thanks for clarifying. I had spoken to an AI colleague about this a couple years back which is where I got the info I wrote up.

      Attacks on EoD sites – A contact (not with AI) had told me about those 2 sites being taken down. Thanks for the correction.

      Demonstrating effect – Very interesting! You seem to be hinting that AI (and/or others) have indeed carried out these data-driven impact evaluations and that these have empirically shown the impact of EoD but that you can’t make this public or it will lose it’s deterrence effect on those committing atrocities. But then you write that the deterrent power of satellites will only be leveraged once those who commit crimes fear being named and their crimes documented. Surely publishing your analysis doesn’t change this or am I missing something?

  6. Patrick, great food for thought. As well as the questions you raise, I wonder what the effect of a project like this is on actors on the ground that working to promote peace. Does it increase the space for action for local civil society organizations working on peacebuilding? Do communities see any of this information? And if so, is it of any use? Maybe these are not appropriate questions – maybe this is an outside looking in initiative, aimed at changing the relations between governments, not at affecting actions at the local level. I guess my concern is that I think R2P is not only shaky as Jessica says but also potentially misguided – the prevention of violence is more likely to be achieved by supporting local groups who promote peace than by deterring from the outside.

    • Hi Trinity, very good and indeed appropriate questions. I’m hoping the Sentinel Project team can shed some light. And yes, the prevention of violence is more likely to be achieved by supporting local groups (ie, a people-centered approach) than by deterring from the outside. That is the whole point of third and fourth generation conflict early warning systems. Thanks for your comment!

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  9. Patrick,

    Some very good questions you pose here. From a technical point of view, using satellite imagery for this kind of monitoring is challenging. We can assume that Google et al have access to the commercial type imagery (GeoEye, WorldView, QuickBird, etc, @ 0.5-1.0 m spatial resolution). These typically pass over an area around 10:00 AM local time (the bad guys can check actual coverage at http://www.n2yo.com). Single frame imagery of this type covers some 10 by 10 sqkm, which is tiny, even given the size of the Abyei (10,000 sqkm). Proper hot spot reporting and matching with satellite programming would help to increase the “hit-rate”, of course.
    Weather-wise, the area should be rather cloud free, January is in the dry season. The imagery is technically adequate to detect a number of localised effects (e.g. aerial bombing, troup and military equipment concentration, destruction and burning activities), but only after the facts, and most likely with the need to have a rather exact location (i.e. within 1 km of the event location). The largest contribution of satellite imagery would, therefore, to confirm in situ reports, and extrapolate to the total impact area.

    Issues like detecting migration patterns from cattle movement are more dubious, as it would require monitoring huge areas (expensive!) of otherwise uneventful terrain. To get any sense of direction and dynamics, you would need to do that several days in a row (unless you can determine in which way the horns are pointing 🙂

    The greatest challenge is probably not technical, but related to the interpretation of the visual artefacts in the imagery. In a complex crisis as in Sudan (multiple parties with different agendas), it wil not be straightforward to unambiguously attribute perceived activities to a particular group. Also, there is a risk that releasing detailed satellite imagery may actually benefit the penetrators of evil, by providing them up to date situational awareness so that they can finetune the next actions. Something to really worry about (check out the http://www.satsentinel.org/report/field-dispatch-bombardments-disputed-border-hint-whats-come about the recent bombing raid on Kiir Adem. The Sudanese Air Force was checking damage and SPLA redeployment days after, but with a risk that the reconnaissance planes were going to be hit by anti-aircraft artillery). Also shows that Sentinel is not as “near real time” as it is supposed to be. I haven’t seen any Kiir Adem imagery yet…

    Your more political issues like R2P, the fact that the UN should take on a spy role, etc. are interesting points as well. I am looking forward to see more comments on those issues.


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  11. Patrick,

    Checked it out. The issue is the time scale. Your regional study was done over years, and even then inferences on cattle displacement are, at most, indirect and certainly difficult to link to singular conflict events or their perpetrators. The latter is supposed to be the rationale of the Sentinel initiative. I understand that the timescale of that action is more in the order of months, or maybe a year (depending on the outbreak of conflict). Paparazzi tend to move on quickly… There are too many variables (weather mostly) that would influence short term vegetation patterns. On the other hand, the method (using MODIS or similar) is relatively straightforward, so should not be completely ignored. MODIS would anyhow be a good idea to use for anomalous fire detection.

    I originally understood the cattle issue to be linked to the detection of sudden displacement of herds, e.g. as an effect of people fleeing from a conflict area. As stated, that would be somewhat difficult/impractical.

    Another thought came up after I posted the previous reply. It would probably be a good idea to involve (retired?) military experts in the image analysis. They should be good at detecting military maneuvers, encampments, defence works, etc., esp. since the Sudanese Army seems to use a lot of Russian material and probably tactics as well. For the sake of neutrality, you would need to do the same for the SPLA deployment (not sure what tactics they follow). In that way, you could probably use the remote sensing data more consistently as a pre-alerting and more likely as a deterrent. Again, there is a need for some good field knowledge on where to look for the most significant built-up. But whether you want to widely share such knowledge is another question. I guess the Sentinel folks have thought that one out already.

    A last point. The European Space Agency also has a Sentinel programme, linked to the European Global Monitoring of Environment and Securitiy initiative (a contribution to GEOSS). It has nothing to do with the Google et al initiative, but may lead to some future name confusion. Curious.

  12. http://www.esa.int/esaLP/SEM097EH1TF_LPgmes_0.html

    ESA’s Sentinel is really about (near- and mid-future) space sensor capacities. The “sentinel” function is primarily environmental (e.g. to “paparazzi” global change processes, as it were), but longer term some sensors in support of [human] security applications may come on line.

  13. Thanks for the great post and comments. Especially interesting to read Scott’s.

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  15. Good post Patrick. I think you are focusing on the just the right questions. To me, it always comes back to the overall logic of the initiative – how do you move from the satellite imagery to a positive change on the ground. I haven’t seen someone clearly describe that logic in regard to this project. Although you identify several possibilities for what this logic is in your post, what I normally see is a good description of the technology and then some hand-waving about the second half of the process (see paparazzi reference.) A final quibble with your last paragraph, given infinite resources it may be a step in the right direction. Given limited resources and opportunity costs, I’m not so sure.

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  19. Very interesting article, i wonder if you found some similar idea about Satellite Image Analysis in here http://www.imagesatintl.com/services/satellite-image-analysis/

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