Clooney-backed satellite project to monitor volatile Sudan
by Pete Spotts / December 29, 2010
In what may be the most ambitious project of its kind, the United Nations and human rights advocates in the US are turning to satellite images and the Web to monitor the border between northern and southern Sudan, as the south prepares for a referendum on Jan. 9 that could split the country in two. The concern: If the referendum in southern Sudan supports independence for the oil-rich, largely Christian region, the country once again could dissolve into a brutal civil war. By combining on-the-ground reports with a nearly daily review of commercial-satellite images, the project’s participants say they hope to head off potential large-scale human rights abuses, should a conflict break out. “We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes know that we’re watching,” said actor George Clooney, a co-founder of Not on Our Watch, a human rights group funding the effort, in a statement. “It’s a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight.”
National intelligence services in the United States and for other major countries are widely acknowledged to have access to more-detailed images than remote-sensing companies can provide. But those images tend to remain classified and out of the public spotlight. The new effort announced Wednesday – the Satellite Sentinel Project – will post its images on a publicly available website, in hopes of mobilizing public opinion in ways that pressure governments to respond to any abuses the effort detects, participants say. The notion of using commercial-satellite images to document destruction of villages, forced migrations, and even inequities in government support for housing across ethnic or religious divides is relatively new. Five years ago, the MacArthur Foundation gave a grant to the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop ways to help human rights groups monitor conditions in hard-to-access countries and regions. Since then, the science organization has worked on several smaller-scale projects with groups such as Amnesty International (AI), notes Lars Bromley, who spearheaded the effort for the AAAS and now heads similar efforts at the UN’s Operational Satellite Applications Program.
In 2007, the AAAS worked with AI on a project known as Eyes on Darfur, monitoring 12 villages. Over the duration of the project, he says, nine remained untouched, while the other three were affected by violence but not as badly as villages elsewhere. “Whether that was due to our project or not we can’t say,” Mr. Bromley acknowledges. “But it was a positive experience.” Indeed, gauging the effectiveness of a project like this can be difficult, acknowledges David Yanagizawa-Drott, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Dr.Yanagizawa-Drott will be evaluating the Satellite Sentinel program’s results under the aegis of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which also is contributing satellite-analysis expertise to the effort. “To address the big question – whether or not the existence of Satellite Sentinel prevents a genocide – is going to be very hard to show,” he says. Still, there are other tests that can address the project’s effect on public awareness and perhaps on public policy, he adds. One key difference between Satellite Sentinel and past, smaller scale projects is its attempt to prepare in advance and work with nearly “real time” images. Many of the early efforts involved comparing images whose before and after views are separated by a span of several years. With the Satellite Sentinel Project, analysts will have access to fresh images every 24 to 36 hours.
Not On Our Watch is providing $750,000 to get the effort going. Web giant Google and website builder Trellon are providing the Web interface and mapping information. Bromley’s office at the UN and researchers with Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative will be analyzing the images. Not On Our Watch and a second human rights group, the Enough Project, are serving as clearinghouses for on-the-ground information coming in from Sudan – information that will help in interpreting the images. And the two groups will spearhead efforts to bring information the project garners to public attention. “Deterrence is our objective,” says John Pendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project. “We want to contribute to the prevention of war between North and South Sudan. If war does ignite, we want to hold accountable those responsible, and hopefully deter human rights crimes that would be committed in the context of war.”
SUDAN REFERENDUM 101
by Ariel Zirulnick / January 6, 2011
What is South Sudan’s referendum about?
Sunday’s referendum is a vote on whether to make the semiautonomous region of South Sudan fully independent from the rest of the country. After decades of war between the Arab-dominated government in the north and southern rebels, a 2005 peace deal between laid out a plan for powersharing between the north and the south and also a provision for a significant degree of southern autonomy, culminating in Sunday’s referendum on whether the South wants to officially secede. On Sunday, South Sudanese are expected to vote for their homeland to become the world’s newest country.
Why is there going to be a referendum? Why not stay unified?
Fundamentally, the desire to separate comes from deep religious and ethnic divides between the North and South of Africa’s biggest country. Northern Sudan is mostly Arab and Muslim, while South Sudan is predominantly non-Arab with a mix between Christian and animist faiths. The tensions boiled over into a brutal two-decade civil war that began in the 1980s and officially ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. There is still great enmity between North and South and distrust over how oil revenues from the oil-rich south are being split.
Who votes in the referendum?
Only South Sudanese who registered during the registration period can vote in the referendum. Most South Sudanese live in the south, but some remain in northern Sudan and many live in other countries as refugees. Registration took place in the following countries: Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the UK, and the US. South Sudanese living in those countries may also vote. In the US, there are polling places open from Jan. 9-15 in Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville, and Boston.
Is this likely to end peacefully?
Journalists, politicians, and international observers were making dire predictions for the outcome of the referendum for a long time, but opinions have been increasingly optimistic lately. It seems more likely now that the south will be allowed to secede if it votes in favor of independence (an outcome that is highly likely). However, a vote also slated for Jan. 9 in oil-rich the border region of Abyei on whether it would join North or South Sudan (if South Sudan votes for independence) has been postponed. The region seemed too unstable for such a vote to happen safely and peacefully. Another point of contention is oil. The vast majority of Sudan’s oil resources are located in South Sudan. The oil revenues are supposed to be split 50-50 between the north and the south, but southern Sudanese and transparency watchdog groups have long complained the figures are not transparent and that northern officials may be taking more than its fair share. Oil export has been a boon for northern Sudan, and it is unlikely the government will cede control of South Sudan’s oil resources easily.
How long will it take to know the results?
The referendum will begin on Jan. 9 and voting will remain open until Jan. 15. A preliminary tally at the county level will happen once the polls close on Jan. 15. Those tallies will be sent to the South Sudan Referendum Commission offices in the South Sudanese capital of Juba and the Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Final preliminary results from South Sudan, northern Sudan, and outside the country are estimated to be ready by Feb. 1. If the final results are not appealed, they are expected to be made official by Feb. 6.
How can we trust the results?
The South Sudan Referendum Commission will be tallying ballots. The SSRC is a body independent of both the South Sudanese or northern Sudanese governments.
Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?
by Patrick Meier / December 30, 2010
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.
an OPEN HAND
Omar al-Bashir visits south Sudan ahead of independence vote
by Xan Rice / 4 January 2011
In his last visit to southern Sudan before Sunday’s independence referendum, President Omar al-Bashir promised voters that he would “congratulate and celebrate with you” should they choose secession. Amid intense security, Bashir was warmly welcomed today in the southern capital, Juba, by its president, Salva Kiir. The Khartoum leader donned a traditional blue robe over his suit as a mark of respect. His convoy left the airport, passing hundreds of people holding southern Sudan flags and waving placards featuring an outline of an open hand – the symbol that will signify separation on the ballot paper. The message was surprisingly polite – Bashir is despised by many here – but it was also clear: “Bye bye”. At Kiir’s presidential palace, Bashir made one final plea to southern voters to choose unity, but appeared resigned to an alternative outcome, which he pledged to respect. “Imposing unity by force doesn’t work,” he said. “We want unity between the north and the south but this doesn’t mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen.”
An overwhelming vote for secession is a near-certainty, splitting Africa’s largest country in two to create the world’s newest state. The referendum is the culmination of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 between Bashir and John Garang, the late leader of the rebel Southern People’s Liberation Army, which ended 22 years of war. Given that conflict, along with earlier wars and decades of marginalisation by the Arab government in Khartoum, there was always little chance that the south would choose unity after the six-year interim period. During that time the region has governed itself, and any lingering doubts about choosing independence that may have existed have disappeared. “We are gone,” said Nhial Bol, editor of the Citizen newspaper, in Juba. “Once a dog is let out for a night in the market it will not return home.” But there have always been questions over whether Bashir would allow southern Sudan to depart peacefully, especially given that the south holds about three-quarters of the country’s oil reserves. Since the CPA his government has obstructed or delayed implementation of key parts of the agreement.
While for many months Juba residents have been counting down the days, hours and minutes to the vote with the help of a huge clock in the centre of the city’s main roundabout, excitement has been tempered with real fears that the referendum would be delayed, raising the threat of violence. But the poll is now destined to go-ahead as scheduled, with voting materials delivered to all the southern states. Justice Chan Reec Madut, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, declared yesterday that the body was “100% prepared for the great day”, while the information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said there was little chance of trouble. “If you’re in Ivory Coast, run away. If you work for WikiLeaks, run way. But if you are here, there is no need to run,” he told reporters.
Southerners’ confidence in the process has been boosted by Bashir’s recent statements when, for the first time, he started publicly acknowledging Sudan might split. He has even pledged to support the new country. In Juba today Bashir reiterated that vow, offering “anything you need” from Khartoum. “We will come and congratulate and celebrate with you … we will not hold a mourning tent,” he said. “We will be happy to achieve the real peace and final peace for all citizens in the north and the south.” While meeting ministers from the southern government, Bashir discussed the problems in Abyei, a border area whose separate referendum this Sunday was postponed owing to disagreements over voter eligibility. He also asked the ministers not to provide any support for rebel groups in the western Darfur region, which remains volatile. With Juba in a state of lockdown – southern officials were terrified that something might happen to Bashir, threatening the vote. But the president departed in the early afternoon for Khartoum, where he faces a tricky future. Already under pressure owing to his arrest warrant from international criminal court over alleged war crimes in Darfur, he is also blamed by many in the north for the imminent breakup of Sudan. His political foes aim to take advantage, with Bashir’s former mentor and ally, Hassan al-Turabi, saying yesterday that opposition groups were working on peaceful strategies “to overthrow the regime right after the results of the referendum are announced”.
Registrars have recorded 3,930,816 southern Sudanese eligible to partake in the referendum, 51% of them women. Voting centres will also be open to southern Sudanese in the north of Sudan, and in eight other countries, including the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. Voting will take place over seven days, starting on Sunday, and will be observed by monitors from numerous states and regions, including the US, the EU and China. Official results are expected within 30 days of polls closing. For the verdict to be legitimate, 60% of registered voters must have cast their ballots. If not, the referendum will have to be rerun within 60 days of the results announcement. A separate ballot over the future of Abyei, an oil-producing region on the north border, was also supposed to have taken place this weekend, with residents choosing whether to join the north or the south. But the Khartoum government’s insistence that Arab nomads from the Misseriya tribe be allowed to vote has caused it to be postponed.