Tag Archives: Cambodia

How Crisis Mapping Proved Henry Kissinger Wrong in Cambodia

Crisis Mapping can reveal insights on current crises as well as crises from decades ago. Take Dr. Jen Ziemke‘s dissertation research on crisis mapping the Angolan civil war, which revealed and explained patterns of violence against civilians. My colleague Dr. Taylor Owen recently shared with me his fascinating research, which comprises a spatio-historical analysis of the US bombardment of Cambodia. Like Jen’s research, Taylor’s clearly shows how crisis mapping can shed new light on important historical events.

Taylor analyzed a recently declassified Pentagon geo-referenced data set of all US bombings during the Indo-Chinese war which revealed substantial errors in the historical record of what happened to Cambodia between 1965-1973. The spatial and temporal analysis also adds more food for thought regarding the link between the rise of the Khmer Rouge and American air strikes. In particular, Owen’s analysis shows that:

“… the total tonnage dropped on Cambodia was five times greater than previously known; the bombing inside Cambodia began nearly 4 years prior to the supposed start of the Menu Campaign, under the Johnson Administration; that, in contradiction to Henry Kissinger’s claims, and over the warning of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Base Areas 704, 354 and 707 were all heavily bombed; the bombing intensity increased throughout the summer of 1973, after Congress barred any such increase; and, that despite claims by both Kissinger and Nixon to the contrary, there was substantial bombing within 1km of inhabited villages.”

To be sure, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “transforms our understan-ding of the scale of what happened to Cambodia during the Indochinese war. The  total tonnage of bombs dropped on the country had previously been pegged at some 500,000 tons. The new analysis dramatically revises this figure upwards to “2,756,941 tons of US bombs dropped during no fewer than 230,516 sorties.” To put this figure into context, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than the number of bombs that the US dropped during all of World War II. Cambodia remains the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Kissinger had claimed that no bombs were being dropped on villages. He gave assurances, in writing, that no bombs would be dropped “closer than 1 km from villages, hamlets, houses, monuments, temples, pagodas or holy places.” As Owen reveals, “the absurdity of Kissinger’s claim is clearly demonstrated” by the crisis mapping analysis below in which the triangles represent village centers and the red points denote bombing targets, often hit with multiple sorties.

Owen argues that “while the villagers may well have hated the Viet Cong, in many cases once their villages had been bombed, they would become more sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge,” hence the supposed link between the eventual Cambodian genocide which killed 1.7 million people (~21% of the population) and the US bombing. To be sure,  “the civilian casualties caused by the bombing significantly increased the recruiting capacity of the Khmer Rouge, whom over the course of the bombing campaign transformed from a small agrarian revolutionary group, to a large anti-imperial army capable of taking over the country.”

In sum, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “challenges both the established historical narrative on the scale and scope of this campaign, as well as our understanding of the effects of large scale aerial bombardment.”

Technologies and Practice for the Prevention of Mass Atrocity Crimes

I’ve waited years for a conference like this: “Early Warning for Protection: Technologies and Practice for the Prevention of Mass Atrocity Crimes.”

This high-level conference combines my main areas of interest: conflict early warning, crisis mapping, civilian protection and technology. I’ll be giving a keynote presentation on “The Potential of New Technologies in Conflict Early Warning” at this conference next week, and I’m particularly looking forward to the panel that will follow, co-organized with my colleague Phoebe Wynn-Pope.

The conference will explore a number of issues.

  • What is the role of new technologies in conflict early warning and how do they interact with more traditional monitoring systems?
  • How can we harness, coordinate, and utilize the sometimes overwhelming amount of information available?
  • What systems and mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure effective early-warning is given?
  • How does the humanitarian sector work effectively with communities at risk once early-warning has been sounded?
  • How can a change in attitude and behavior at a policy level be brought about in a way that forestalls a descent to violence?

In preparing for the presentation, I started re-reading some papers I had written several years ago including this one from 2008: “Bridging Multiple Divides in Early Warning and Response: Upgrading the Role of Information and Communication Technology” (PDF). I will base my presentation in part on this paper and welcome any feedback readers may have. If you don’t have time to read a 25-page paper, here’s a short summary in bullet point format:

  • The field of conflict early warning has largely been monopolized by academics who are obsessed with forecasting conflict.
  • Operational conflict early warning systems are little more than glorified databases.
  • The conflict early warning community’s track-record in successfully predicting (let alone preventing) armed conflict is beyond dismal.
  • State-centric and external approaches to conflict early warning and rapid response have almost systematically failed.
  • The disaster early warning community have long advocated for a people-centered approach to early warning given the failures of top-down, institutional methods.
  • The disaster early warning community has been an early adopter of new technologies, particularly those engaged in public health.
  • The purpose of a people-centered approach is to empower individuals so they can mitigate the impact of a disaster on their livelihoods and/or to get out of harm’s way.
  • Preparedness and contingency planning are core to a people-centered approach since natural hazards like earthquakes can’t be easily predicted let alone stopped.
  • Given the dismal failure of conflict early warning systems, the conflict prevention community should make conflict preparedness and contingency planning a top priority.
  • Precedents for a people-centered approach to conflict early warning  exists in the fields of strategic nonviolent action and digital activism.
  • More importantly, communities that experienced conflict have developed sophisticated coping strategies to evade and survive.
  • Some of these communities already use technologies to survive.

I will expand on these points with several real-world examples and, more importantly, will combine these with what I have learned over the past two years, specifically in terms of crisis mapping, new technologies and civilian resistance. I’m excited to put all of my thoughts together for this conference, and I especially look forward to feedback from readers and conversing with participants.