The Anti-Genocide Paparazzi Snap Crimes Against Human­ity from 300 Miles Up

Crossposted from Unbound: A Journal of Christian Social Justice

Crimes against human­ity are best car­ried out in secret. Ter­ror can be inflicted, eth­nic cleans­ing can be waged; tor­ture can be com­mit­ted — and in areas that the whole world is not already watch­ing — who will even know? That’s the way it has always been. But bru­tal regimes are now on notice that human rights activists with satel­lites may be emerg­ing at any time to illu­mi­nate and doc­u­ment their crimes; and haul them before the court of world opin­ion — and pos­si­bly the Inter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court.

The Wash­ing­ton D.C.–based Satel­lite Sen­tinel Project (SSP) has for two years been method­i­cally expos­ing mil­i­tary build-ups and aggres­sion, as well as war crimes and shock­ing crimes against human­ity in a remote part of Africa — and demon­strat­ing the worth of one of the most promis­ing advances in human rights work in the his­tory of the world.

SSP is the brain­child of actor George Clooney and human rights activist John Pren­der­gast, who sought to use high res­o­lu­tion satel­lite imagery to doc­u­ment mil­i­tary aggres­sion and atten­dant atroc­i­ties and to bring them to world atten­tion. Access to such tools has his­tor­i­cally been lim­ited to governments, militaries and large cor­po­ra­tions. SSP is the first sus­tained pri­vate appli­ca­tion of satel­lites for peace advo­cacy and human rights. The orga­ni­za­tion has focused on volatile areas in Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan in its first two years, from 300 miles over the earth, peer­ing into places where the inter­na­tional media and even human­i­tar­ian aid groups can­not go — places that the geno­ci­dal Khar­toum regime would rather the world not see.

Clooney said jok­ingly that the SSP would be “the anti-genocide paparazzi” — but their reports have repeat­edly com­manded the atten­tion of the world media from NBC News to the BBC and Al Jazeera.

SSP has exposed, among other things, the work of death squads in the town of Kadugli. Com­bin­ing satel­lite images with eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony, SSP pub­lished satel­lite images of piles of white body bags; the trucks and clean-up crews; the dis­posal of the bod­ies in mass graves; and bull­doz­ing over the corpse-filled pits. SSP has also shown mil­i­tary build-up, such as the mass­ing of troops and and the deploy­ment of attack heli­copters and Antonov bombers. In Decem­ber of 2012, SSP pub­lished graphic images of vast tracts of land that were once home to thou­sands of peo­ple span­ning 26 vil­lages as well as crops and cat­tle — now burned black. The UN reports that more than 200,000 Nuba peo­ple have been dis­placed — dri­ven out of their homes and home­land by the Khar­toum regime — and are now liv­ing in refugee camps.

SSP is cur­rently a joint effort of the anti-genocide group Enough (a project of The Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress); the Dig­i­tal­Globe satel­lite com­pany; and Not On Our Watch, an orga­ni­za­tion of such lead­ing Hol­ly­wood fig­ures as Clooney, Don Chea­dle, and Matt Damon. The pilot phase of SSP also included the UN satel­lite agency, UNOSAT; Har­vard Human­i­tar­ian Ini­tia­tive; and the inter­net com­pa­nies Google and Trellon. Dynamic game-changing inno­va­tion inevitably dis­com­fits some estab­lished inter­ests, and the Satel­lite Sen­tinel Project has been no excep­tion. Some ele­ments in the U.S. gov­ern­ment have tried to dis­credit their work, notably the doc­u­men­ta­tion of mass graves. The leader of that effort was then-U.S. Spe­cial Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Prince­ton Lyman. He could pro­vide no facts to dis­prove the mass mur­ders, body bag­ging, and mass graves and had no alter­na­tive expla­na­tion for what the satel­lite imagery showed — and the issue was not revis­ited. Some of the satel­lite recon­nais­sance com­mu­nity have, how­ever, wel­comed and been fas­ci­nated by this pri­vate effort.

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