Tag Archives: Genocide

Can Live Crisis Maps Help Prevent Mass Atrocities?

Live crisis maps tell stories, hopefully compelling stories the last chapters of which have yet to be written. To paraphrase my New York Times colleague Anand Giridharadas: They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time: “I was here, and this is what happened to me”?

Anand recently sat down with Elie Wiesel to talk about the power of bearing witness. “If one idea has animated Mr. Wiesel’s life, it is that of the power of memory: memory gives culture, he likes to say; memories spoken and shared can prevent remembered tragedies from recurring.”

This afternoon, I sat down with someone who recounted to me in graphic detail the absolute horrors he witnessed during weeks of relentless violence in Central Asia less than a year ago. Survivors uploaded their videos and pictures of the targeted violence but they did so weeks after the murders and uploaded them on several different websites, making the aggregation of evidence difficult. The international media remained unresponsive which hampered advocacy efforts. The remaining survivors were so desperate for attention that they even painted SOS in large letters on nearby roads in hopes that passing helicopters or airplanes would come to the rescue. But help from the skies above never came.

Would a live crisis map have made a difference? Would a single, public repos-itory of geo-referenced evidence mapped in real-time and multi-media format have mattered?  There are of course those who still ask, “What’s the point of putting dots on a map? How’s that supposed to change anything?” As my Ushahidi colleague Brian Herbert likes to respond, “Well then, what’s the point of having words on a page, huh? How are words going to change anything?” They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Can the live crisis map be even mightier than the pen? If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what is a live map worth? Will all live maps have the desired impact? Of course not, just like not every letter or book ever written has had significant impact.

But some live crisis maps may create unprecedented pressure to respond in a more timely manner. As my colleague Olga Werby recently noted,

“Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC [International Criminal Court] Prosecutor, sited Facebook and other social media as key influence in ICC taking action in Libya: ‘[Facebook and social-networking] triggered a very quick reaction. The [United Nations] Security Council reacted in a few days; the U.N. General Assembly reacted in a few days. So, now because the court is up and running we can do this immediately,’ he said. ‘I think Libya is a new world. How we manage the new challenge—that’s what we will see now.” (CNN World News article: “Gadhafi faces investigation for crimes against humanity” by Atika Shubert (watch the video at 1:40), published on March 3, 2011.) Mr. Moreno-Ocampo talks about sea-change in the world’s reaction time to crisis due to the effects of ICT!”

In his recent piece on “The Political Power of Social Media“, Clay Shirky noted that access to conversation is more important, politically, than access to information. He writes that change in behavior does not come from mass media alone. Rather, it is a two-step process where the second, social step, stems from the conversations that happen between family, friends and colleagues about new information related by the media. This is when political change becomes possible. I have witnessed first hand how crisis maps catalyze conversations and prompt questions about the patterns that materialize on the maps, the actions of a government or secret police, the reasons for the status-quo, etc.

After his conversation with Elie Wiesel, Anand wrote the following:

“The debate has tended to dwell on the question of whether all this overseas digital mirroring of a crisis, especially when the Internet is inaccessible or censored in the nation in crisis, is of any use to those on the ground. But what is often missing from the debate is the idea of bearing witness: the notion, as Mr. Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concen- tration camps and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once put it, that an experience like the one he endured ‘cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared.’ Today, at age 82, he is a trace removed from the latest technology trends, but he was more vigorous than many half his age in seeing a place for technology in tragedy. It is partly that the sufferings of others are available to much of the world in real time today, he said, and partly that the multiplication of avenues to publish and to access what others publish makes people less confined to particular sources:

‘Since they come from a variety of sources, from a variety of people, representing all ideologies and all sensitivities, we know. We cannot not know,’ Mr. Wiesel said.  ‘Whether you want it or not,’ he added a moment later, ‘we are witnesses.’ Because of technology, and because of the progress made in technology, especially in the field of communication, no one has any excuse anymore to say, ‘I don’t know; I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware’.”

After listening to the horrors that happened in Central Asia, I reached for my laptop and turned to the live Crisis Map of Libya. The person who had just recounted some of the atrocities he had witnessed had never seen a map quite like this one nor heard of Ushahidi. I explained to him the range of possible features and the different ways that people around the world have used the mapping platform over the past three years.

I felt some hope from my interlocutor, he was excited but I could tell that—like myself—he was also trying not to get his hopes too high. But there are definitely grounds for hope. He said something like this had never been tried in his part of the world before. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out. The last chapters of this story have yet to be written.

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.

Crisis Mapping Uganda: Combining Narratives and GIS to Study Genocide

This new peer-reviewed paper in The Professional Geographer is worth reading, especially if you’re new to crisis mapping. Authors Marguerite Madden and Amy Ross combine qualitative data of personal narratives with GIS technologies to “explore the potential for critical cartography in the study of mass atrocity.”

The authors use Northern Uganda, where millions have been affected by physical violence, as a case study. Their research yields the following conclusions:

  • Satellite images confirm the disruptive impact of forced relocation on economic activity, which resulted in greater levels of mortality than overt violence of LRA attacks.
  • Points, lines, and polygons delineated in Google Earth can be uploaded in ArcGIS to analyze the spatial patterns of huts and changes in IDP camps over time.
  • GIS data appear to have potential in documenting crimes that fall within the category of crimes against humanity.
  • Qualitative data may fail to demonstrate the extent and systematic nature of violence. GIS techniques may be able to provide the widespread and systematic criteria necessary for a conviction on crimes against humanity when individual life experiences are too difficult to document in sufficient numbers.
  • GIScience technologies appear to have less value in determining the crime of genocide. To reach a legal finding of genocide, the intent of the perpetrators must be established. GIS technologies alone, it seems, fail to provide solutions to this difficulty.

Marguerite and Amy cite the following research, which may be of interest to those looking for further reading in this area:

Kwan, M., and G. Ding. 2008. Geo-narrative: Extending geographic information systems for narrative
analysis in qualitative and mixed-method research. The Professional Geographer 60 (4): 443–65.

I wonder whether Marguerite and Amy have thought about exploring a collaboration with the EC’s Joint Research Center (JRC). The latter has developed automated change-detection methods for refugee/IDP camps, and if I remember correctly, they are looking for ways to validate their analysis using ground truthing.

Many thanks to my colleague Andrew Linke of Colorado University for sharing this paper with me.

Patrick Philippe Meier