Spotting Darfur Atrocities From Space


Those burning villages in Darfur can now be tracked closely by public satellite. Google’s project in Darfur uses its Google Earth project to identify and then illustrate where human rights abuses have been committed.

Satellites first showed their potential as human rights watchdogs when the U.S. State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) started using images from free channels in 2004 to reveal the unfolding violence in Darfur. Before then, such images could only be tracked by military satellites.

But now such tracking has become open to the public. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum teamed up with Google's mapping service in April to track violence in the region. The initiative called 'Crisis in Darfur' lets Internet users look at more than 1,600 destroyed villages and towns in northeast Africa, pictured before and after attacks, and hear testimonies collected by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other groups along the Chad border. According to Google, the programme counts more than 200 million users.

During the first phase of the conflict reports by relief agencies met denial by the government, and public scepticism. But now satellite images showing the true picture with dates leave no room for doubt. The images have amplified the highlight on Darfur, though they may not help prevent attacks since the information is not presented in real time.

To track attacks as they happen, Amnesty International has launched its own web-based service in June called 'Eyes on Darfur', which uses satellite imagery to monitor 13 villages in Darfur and eastern Chad considered at risk. Users can zoom in on pictures of the villages and read accounts from residents who explain why they are at risk. "Watching these sites in real time will enable us to document atrocities as they occur," said Ariela Blätter, director of Amnesty International's Crisis Prevention and Response Centre.

"Thanks to satellites," she says on the website, "human rights groups can now raise the alarm and mobilise millions of people even before governments admit that something worrying is occurring." Through this technology human rights organisations can extend their traditional role of monitoring violations to an unprecedented level, says Blätter.

Inter Press Service