Crimes against humanity are best carried out in secret. Terror can be inflicted, ethnic cleansing can be waged, torture can be committed, and if it is not an official hot spot that the whole world is already watching then who in the world will even know? That is the way it has pretty much always been. But brutal regimes are now on notice that human rights activists with satellites may pop up at any time to document their crimes and haul them before the court of world opinion — and possibly even the International Criminal Court.
For two years the Washington, DC-based SatelliteSentinel Project (SSP) has been methodically exposing military build-ups and aggression, as well as war crimes and shocking crimes against humanity, in a remote part of Africa. At the same time they are 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 wanted to use high-resolution satellite imagery to document military aggression and attendant atrocities and to bring them to world attention. Historically access to such tools has been limited to governments, militaries, and large corporations. SSP is the first sustained private use of satellites for peace and human rights work. In its first two years the organization has focused on volatile areas in Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan. From 300 miles over the earth its satelites have peered 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 jokingly said SSP would be “the anti-genocide paparazzi." As it turns out, their reports have repeatedly commanded the attention of world media from NBC News to the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Among other things, SSP has exposed the 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 buildups such as the massing of troops and and the deployment of attack helicopters and Antonov bombers. In December 2012 SSP published horrifying images of vast tracts of land that were once home to thousands of people in 26 villages, as well as crops, and cattle, now burned black. The UN reports that more than 200 thousand 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, which is a project of the Center for American Progress; the DigitalGlobe satellite company; and Not On Our Watch, an organization of leading Hollywood figures like Clooney, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon. The pilot phase of SSP also included the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the internet companies Google and Trellon.
And while continuing to focus on Sudan, SSP would like to see its proven methods more widely used. Jonathan Hutson of the Enough project told Spare Change News, “We envision that our model can also be applied to other emerging crises, such as exposing terrorist networks in Africa who are poaching endangered species like elephants and rhinos for ivory to fund their activities.”
Meanwhile a full-blown civil war has erupted in Sudan, as Khartoum has launched what 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. In a 200l interview Anglican Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail told me his name was on the death squads' hit list, and if he had not been out of the country then 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 US, 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 stand with the victims and survivors. Our time is no different. But now, for the first time, tools of unprecedented power have fallen into the hands of people waging peace.