Sudan’s Eye In The Sky

To my surprise I recently came across an article on the Sudanese referendum that serves as an interesting example of a situation in which celebrities are becoming involved in a cause, and their actions seem to be both heartfelt and may hold a genuine promise of producing some meaningful results. The article was published in TIME Magazine’s first issue of 2011 and describes how a group of celebrities, namely George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman and Jerry Weintraub, have founded a new group called, “Not On Our Watch”. Clooney and the others are effectively household names, but there is another important partner which has teamed up with him. John Prendergast has been involved in African human rights works for over 25 years.

Why this is so interesting is down to a new idea Clooney came up with while he and Prendergast were visiting a school in Southern Sudan. George Clooney posed the question that has begun to change the way in which the world deals with, and responds to political violence and atrocities committed in far off places most people have never even heard of. On the 30th of December 2010, his idea has become the Satellite Sentinel Project.  Along with Clooney’s “Not On Our Watch”, and Prendergast’s “The Enough Project”, the U.N.’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme and Harvard University, will begin to hire private satellites which will monitor troop movements, beginning with the oil-rich region of Abyei. The way the system works is that 24 hours after an incident the images will have been analysed and made public, at www.satsentinel.org, which will serve to inform the world, and remind the leaders of both southern and northern Sudan that they are being watched. As Clooney says, “If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently when you act in a vacuum.”

There are limitations to the idea. It is very expensive renting time on a commercial satellite. It can also only cover small strips of land at a time or focus in on specific locations, which in the world’s tenth largest country gives people who want to commit atrocities a pretty large haystack to hide their needle in. Resolution of the images also remains an issue. These satellites are not U.S. CORONA class optical observation satellites; they are only able to take images that are blurry by modern standards. They cannot meet the colloquial yard stick of being able to see a licence plate from space; likewise they could not identify an individual person. They are simply able to keep track of movements of groups of people, horses, cars and trucks.  To give you an idea then of the challenges of this approach, a focused “single shot” from one of these satellites covers an area of about 272 square kilometres and costs $ 10,000. While a wider “full strip” image covers an area 115 km’s long by 14 km’s wide, and costs as much as $ 70, 000. Sentinel launched with $ 750, 000 of donor funds. That’s not a whole lot of imaging over an extended period before, during and after the referendum, even if the correct hot spots can be both identified and imaged. However, Clooney is hoping that funding will pick up dramatically once the project goes live.

The thought of using private financing and technology to construct a monitoring system which would enable violence and natural disasters to be monitored worldwide could become a revolutionary human security concept. I for one would love to believe that the results could be amazing, and hope this idea not only proves a useful tool in the Sudanese referendum, but goes on to increase in scope and effectiveness. Of course it remains to be seen if this is possible, especially in the case of Sudan. I think the system could only prove its worth if it were either able to document an atrocity, or prove successful at informing both the northern or southern Sudanese governments and the international community of suspicious activity. If this did happen it still does not provide us with any real guarantee that action neither can nor will be taken.  The impact it will have in the upcoming referendum could be fundamental, or anecdotal.

How long would a government stay in power if they refused to do anything about clear evidence of genocide, such as a satellite image would provide? Imagine if in 1994, George Clooney’s satellite had been monitoring even one Interahamwe road block during the Rwandan Genocide. I seriously doubt we would have seen the U.N. commander on the ground being told he had to respect his mandate and remember he was a peace-keeper and not a soldier.

Time spent deliberating about whether genocide was happening in Rwanda or not would take about 30 seconds to resolve if the Satellite Sentinel Project had been launched a decade or so earlier. And again, the UN and other key players such as the United States were aware of the genocide, but wasted time and decided to delay getting involved because Rwanda was not important enough to warrant intervention, and they tried to stall for time or wait for the genocide to wind down, their populations would most likely have them out of office so fast they would not even be able to say ‘satellite’. I cannot stress enough the enormous potential this concept holds.

So has George Clooney let the genie out of the bottle? Has he single handily managed to shake up the international peace and security environment by providing a means of monitoring troops movements, refugee flows and many similar things that could be revealed by satellite feeds. The UN could use it elsewhere if the network expanded far enough, which would also inevitably lead to an increase in the quality of the images, and reduce the cost. What would happen if the UN had a global satellite monitoring network which scrutinised the surface of the earth 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?

We know that for decades there have been several military satellites that many major powers in the world have, and could provide far greater detail than any of the commercial satellites that Satellite Sentinel Project is using. These satellites can see licence plates from space, and identify individual people, so why so it that countries like the USA, Germany, the U.K. and France did not publicise satellite images of the violence in recent hot spots like Darfur? Look, we have evidence. Again this is more food for thought than anything else, but surely they have been aware of what was going on there, and could have done more to prevent it, for some time now? Forget WikiLeaks, think about that one.

The sooner this goes global and becomes a legitimate tool the sooner violence and crimes against humanity being to be publically documented, and then, maybe, just maybe someone will actually do something about it. It is easy at the moment for members of the Security Council to oppose action if they feel it would set a dangerous president, or cost them potential allies. However, with proof of crimes against humanity, how long would any government get away with opposing intervention if every single citizen from plumber to investment banker was aware of what was going on?

I know I for one will be checking the Satellite Sentinel Projects website on a regular basis, and waiting with bated breath to see if any major incidents occur, come the referendum. I trust you will all be join me in hoping everything goes according to plan, and should it not, making one hell of a noise about it, once we have all reviewed the satellite feeds. Better yet, how about donating to “Not On Our Watch”? Now there is a thought.