Celebrities know a lot about being watched. Maybe that’s one reason for actor George Clooney’s enthusiasm for the satellite camera he’s trained on Sudan.
Sudan has been a longstanding interest for the actor. He’s testified before Congress about the country, and in June 2012 was arrested for protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC, against alleged war criminal President Omar al-Bashir. Since 2010 he’s also funded the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), an organization that independently observes the volatile border between Sudan and South Sudan. SSP has become not only a witness to genocide, it is opening up a new frontier in civilian humanitarian aid.
Working through partnerships with the Enough! Project, DigitalGlobe, Google and the Harvard Humanitarian Institute, SSP pairs satellite imagery with on-the-ground mapmakers and analysts. The project tracks military movements, records human rights violations, and builds an evidence base of satellite images paired with reports and data from the field. Even in an age of widespread government surveillance, SSP represents a number of ‘firsts.’ It is a groundbreaking application of military technology within civilian peacekeeping; it is a unique partnership between tech companies, scholars and aid workers; and it brings new data to bear on international policy.
For a full year beginning in 2011, the SSP recorded more than 25 violations of existing peace agreements and military movements that threatened Sudanese villages and people. The broad peripheral vision of the satellites also ensured that the movements on both sides—government as well as rebel forces—were captured. Satellite images of mass graves and smoldering villages provided incontrovertible evidence of events previously hinted at by those on the ground. They not only revealed the extent of the damage, but could be knit together to show the direction and pace of destruction in the wake of moving troops.
It wasn’t long before project leaders recognized that the combination of satellite imagery and ground level analysis could be used to predict future disasters. In September 2011, for example, SSP analysts realized that their satellite images of troop movements pointed to a surefire attack on the village of Kurmulk. They took the unusual step, as a watchdog organization, of issuing a warning, and thousands of people were able to flee ahead of the onslaught.
Not surprisingly, the international response to SSP’s images lags significantly behind the technology. For the humanitarian aid community, however, SSP has signaled a sea change. Humanitarian groups are mostly trained to respond to crises, not to avert them. Nonintervention has been a stalwart feature of humanitarian aid for centuries, and a key reason these groups are given access to war zones in the first place. Changing their rules of engagement may mean saving lives in the near term, but could also result in being banned from conflict zones the next time around. Actively shaping the direction of a conflict means new responsibilities and the need for an updated code of ethics.
The SSP is teaching us that new technology can be applied to humanitarian aid faster than we can predict the consequences of doing so. This is often true of cutting-edge technologies. But rarely is it a matter of life or death.