The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:
“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”
The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty 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.”
If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.
So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”
According to Amnesty, the project “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally ‘watch over’ and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.
Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.
In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?
French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power. “He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon,’ an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells. The ‘major effect of the Panopticon,’ writes Foucault, is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’”
According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”: Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?
There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).
If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.
As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”
This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.
US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.
The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.
How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.
p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.