US Calls for UN Aerial Surveillance to Detect Preparations for Attacks

The US President:

“I am planning in the near future to submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack. This plan I had intended to place before this conference. This surveillance system would operate in the territories of all nations prepared to accept such inspection. For its part, the United States is prepared not only to accept United Nations aerial surveillance but to do everything in its power to contribute to the rapid organization and successful operation of such international surveillance.”

The conference in question was the US-Soviet Summit meeting held in Paris on May 16th, 1960, and the words above were Dwight Eisenhower’s. Just weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down an American U-2 CIA spy plane and captured it’s pilot Gary Powers. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev lost no time in lashing out against the US President during the Summit, holding him directly responsible for the collapse of the talks, which many on both sides had hoped would usher in a period of “peaceful coexistence” between the superpowers.

Khrushchev called the espionage sanctioned by Eisenhower a provocative and aggressive act against the Soviet Union.

“We regret that this Meeting has been torpedoed by the reactionary element in the United States as the outcome of provocative flights by American military planes over the Soviet Union. [...] Let the shame and blame for it fall on those who have proclaimed a brigand policy in relation to the Soviet Union…” (1).

Eisenhower, who is said to have been furious at Khrushchev’s public attacks, replied forthwith:

“I have come to Paris to seek agreements with the Soviet Union which would eliminate the necessity for all forms of espionage, including overflights. I see no reason to use this incident to disrupt the conference.”

“Should it prove impossible, because of the Soviet attitude, to come to grips here in Paris with this problem and the other vital issues threatening world peace, I am planning in the near future to submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack. This plan I had intended to place before this conference. This surveillance system would operate in the territories of all nations prepared to accept such inspection. For its part, the United States is prepared not only to accept United Nations aerial surveillance but to do everything in its power to contribute to the rapid organization and successful operation of such international surveillance” (2).

I find this all absolutely fascinating, and mentioned the exchange to colleagues at UNOSAT just a few weeks ago at CERN in Geneva. The UN’s Operational Satellite Program was actually created 40 years after Eisenhower’s threats to set up UN aerial surveillance unit. It was equally fascinating to learn about UNOSAT’s analysis of satellite imagery during Sri Lanka’s military attacks in April. The analysis clearly showed that the military shelled areas where civilians were sheltering in a no-fire zone.

As per UNOSAT’s mandate, this analysis was done regardless of whether the Sri Lankan government was prepared to accept such inspection, and rightly so.

Military attacks are not random, they are organized. This by definition means that preparations for military attacks reveal patterns. Heavy equipment, military trucks, jeeps, etc., all need to be mobilized in a coordinated manner. I recently spoke with one of the world’s leading experts on automated change detection of satellite imagery and he confirmed that algorithms could now be developed to detect specific types of traffic patterns, for example.

Will the UN ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack? After all, the first Article of the Charter commits the UN to “maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace [...].” Can a US President today commit the UN to a full fledged international aerial surveillance program? There clearly is a strong precedent and it is important we not forget this important piece of history.

UPDATED: Professor Alan Kuperman just sent me an email the Open Skies Proposal that Eisenhower put forward 5 years before the US-Soviet Summit. The Open Skies Treaty actually entered into force 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.

Absolutely fascinating, thanks Alan!

Patrick Philippe Meier

18 responses to “US Calls for UN Aerial Surveillance to Detect Preparations for Attacks

  1. Hello Patrick,
    Annother excellent post.
    It is about time for the book: “Early warning and crisis mapping”-a primer by P.P. Meier.
    Sommerwind will take care of the German translation!
    Yours
    Martin

  2. This IS fascinating… but what about internal troop movements in civil wars. I’m thinking of when JEM attacked Khartoum last year. There were all these reports about troop movements but the government didn’t really know what was happening.

    How would this affect internal rebel groups? I guess you’re a pacifist Patrick, but how would this information affect internal political struggles? and would the information be accessible to all?

    • Thanks for your comment and questions, Laura. It is possible to use satellite imagery to track troop movements. Now how this information would affect internal political struggles is a question you’re much more qualified to answer than I am.

      As for access, good question. I doubt the information would be accessible to all simply because this would make the commercial satellite companies go bust.

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  4. What is interesting is that arial surveillance of troop movement is actually only one of many arial surveillance tools that monitor dynamic changes in a location that can offer insight into the potential for violence. Other variables that could be linked to potential “crises” or conflict can include geographic changes such as drought and/or floods which would lead to food security and land sovereignty issues; mineral deposits that could lead to land use and extraction conflicts (ie. the killing recently in Kenya of a mine owner), water control, etc.

    The only systematic collection of this kind of data exists within the UN system and the various funds, programmes and specialized agencies. The larger issue is why, after 60+ years of data collection is there virtually NO collaboration and sharing of these linked data sources—some of which include great arial surveillance maps, that would be fascinating to see in a longtitudinal sequence…

    The UN system has to realize its full potential—and actually work together to build peace…..it’s about time…

  5. +1 to jerri for pointing out the ridiculous state of open geodata.

    Imagine if you could design a crowdsourced mapping application that had realtime imagery … That would be a great example of a consumer-level tool for novice (but widespread) monitoring and analysis.

    From this perspective, we don’t need a UN-led surveillance initiative, we just need the for all the data to be Open.

  6. Surveillance (in all kinds) is good thing – prevents crime, stops fire at early stages and so on. But sometimes it can cause more troubles than benefits – illegal spy camera, private life violation …etc. I think surveillance is power, it should be used wisely.

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