AAAS Geospatial Team Conducts Trainings in France and The Gambia

Taken 16 October 2013 after the human rights organizations training. Pictured L to R: Mary Maboreke; Jonathan Drake; Jainaba Johm, Former Commissioner at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights; Andrew Chigovera; Susan Wolfinbarger | Courtesy Susan Wolfinbarger

In two trainings held in France and The Gambia last month, a AAAS team demonstrated how to include geospatial technologies to aid human rights workers as they pursue litigation or collect evidence on rights violations.

From satellite imagery to GPS data collected with a mobile phone, these technologies can be used to explore issues such as mass graves, village destruction, forced relocations and environmental violations such as oil spills, said Susan Wolfinbarger, director of AAAS' Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project.

Wolfinbarger, along with Program Associate Jonathan Drake and AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Associate Director Jessica Wyndham, conducted a training on 11 October at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. On 16 October, Wolfinbarger and Drake also led a training for human rights workers in Banjul, The Gambia, in advance of a meeting of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The trainings, supported by a two-year grant from Oak Foundation, are part of a plan to demonstrate the uses of geospatial technologies to a broader group of human rights organizations, "particularly ones that are functioning around the regional human rights courts and commissions," Wolfinbarger said.

The AAAS project has provided critical analysis in several large-scale human rights investigations, including reports on the continuing war in Syria, environmental pollution in Turkmenistan, and the destruction of villages in the Darfur region of Sudan. They shared some of their studies with the training groups, Wolfinbarger said, "to get the participants thinking about how technologies like satellite imagery could be used in the projects that they are working on."

The Strasbourg training drew nearly 50 participants from the European Court, from judicial staff to information technology specialists. Michael O'Boyle, the Court's Deputy Registrar and second highest-ranking official, said the presentation was especially "relevant for the Court's work since it sets out a very specific approach to establishing the facts in certain types of cases."

Taken 11 October 2013 after the training at the European Court of Human Rights. Pictured L to R: Jessica Wyndham; Michael O'Boyle; Jonathan Drake; Susan Wolfinbarger | Courtesy Susan Wolfinbarger

Although the courts are just beginning to explore how these technologies can be used in litigation, he noted, human rights groups and lawyers are "excited by the prospect of having recourse to such tools on issues such as migratory flows, armed conflict in distant countries, famine, and boundary disputes."

In Banjul, Wolfinbarger and Drake spoke with ten researchers and fieldworkers from African human rights organizations at a training organized by the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. They presented information on remote sensing technologies such as satellite imagery, but also provided training on how to use basic mapping and GPS technologies for evidence gathering and advocacy campaigns.

One of the goals of the training, Wolfinbarger said, was to help human rights workers "think about ways to incorporate new technology from the beginning of a project."

For example, high-resolution satellite imagery archives stretching back to 1999 make it possible for human rights courts and commissions to request analyses of events where much of the physical evidence is inaccessible, destroyed or lost, Wolfinbarger said. "The ability for us to go back into time and investigate things that we didn't know about when they were happening is one big thing that's making this technology really important for human rights documentation."

Andrew Chigovera, a former commissioner at the African Commission, was among the Banjul participants. "In hindsight, a lot of human rights investigations I was involved in, particularly those in conflict situations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would have derived tremendous benefit from the training," he agreed.

Chigovera, who now serves as chairperson of the governing council of the Africa Centre, said he would welcome more extensive training from the AAAS team. The project would like to return to Africa for more trainings, Wolfinbarger said, and was encouraged by the interest shown in Banjul by Mary Maboreke, the executive secretary of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Beyond Africa, the team is planning trainings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Asian-Pacific Forum, and hopes to offer a training at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as well.