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.

But the project faces a greater con­cern than turf-conscious agen­cies inside and out­side gov­ern­ment. Regard­less of the qual­ity and time­li­ness of the work and its medi­a­genic nature, no one with the capac­ity to make a deci­sive dif­fer­ence has been will­ing to do much to pre­vent or respond to the mil­i­tary aggres­sion of the Khar­toum regime and the now well-documented pat­tern of atroc­i­ties that lead from Dar­fur to South Kord­o­fan. The U.S. State Depart­ment has sent an occa­sional sternly worded let­ter to Khar­toum, but has oth­er­wise taken no con­certed pub­lic action to stop the atroc­i­ties. Sim­i­larly, the UN Secu­rity Coun­cil has been briefed by its own staff about the atroc­i­ties, and is well aware of the SSP imagery, but will not take action for a vari­ety of rea­sons. One rea­son is that Secu­rity Coun­cil mem­ber China gets six per­vent of its oil from the Sudans. Mean­while, Pres­i­dent Bashir and other top Sudanese lead­ers are accom­plished war crim­i­nals, unable to leave the coun­try with­out risk­ing arrest and trial before the Inter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court for their activ­i­ties in Dar­fur. They have lit­tle to lose.

Unde­terred, SSP has con­tin­ued its focus on Sudan. But SSP would also like to see their now-proven meth­ods more widely used — in other coun­tries and focus­ing on other con­cerns. “We envi­sion that our model can also be applied to other emerg­ing crises,” Jonathan Hut­son of the Enough project told Unbound, “such as expos­ing ter­ror­ist net­works in Africa who are poach­ing endan­gered species such as ele­phants and rhi­nos to fund their activities.”

Mean­while, a war has erupted in Sudan, as Khar­toum has launched what some long time observers describe as a “final solu­tion” against the Nuba peo­ple. The Nuba are black Africans who have been tar­geted by the Arab Islamists who dom­i­nate the Khar­toum regime. Angli­can Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail told me in a 2011 inter­view that his name was on the death squad’s hit list, and if he had not been out of the coun­try, he would prob­a­bly be in a mass grave in Kadugli.

“We all belong to one human fam­ily, what­ever our national, eth­nic or polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences,” Andudu (who is liv­ing in exile in the U.S.) told a House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing in 2012. “The state-sponsored eth­nic cleans­ing cam­paign is tar­get­ing Nuba peo­ple, includ­ing not only Christians such as the Angli­can Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Sudanese Church of Christ in Kadugli, but also Mus­lims, includ­ing those who wor­ship at the mosque in Kauda, which a SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] fighter plane recently tar­geted with ten rockets.

“We are our broth­ers’ and sis­ters’ keep­ers, wher­ever they may be,” Andudu said. “Lov­ing our neigh­bor requires pro­mot­ing peace and jus­tice in a world marred by geno­ci­dal violence.”

His­tory is full of such sto­ries: the aggres­sors and the hor­rors that they bring, and those who stood in sol­i­dar­ity with the vic­tims and sur­vivors. And our time is no dif­fer­ent. But in our time, for the first time, unprece­dent­edly pow­er­ful tools have fallen into the hands of peo­ple wag­ing peace.

About the Author

Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist, author and editor who has written about politics and religion for thirty years. He is the co-founder of the group blog Talk to Action, Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, and lives in Massachusetts.

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