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AAAS Human Rights Day Recognizes Role of Geospatial Images in Human Rights
Porta Farm, Zimbabwe, was a settlement of more than 850 buildings and as many as 10,000 people when the satellite photo (top) was taken in 2002. But the second image (below), taken 6 April 2006, shows the settlement has been levelled.
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Cutting-edge satellite imagery is becoming an increasingly important tool for human rights groups documenting violations around the world, a panel of human rights experts said at an AAAS program on December 6th held in honor of Human Rights Day 2006.
Most recently, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have worked with AAAS to combine high resolution satellite imagery with geographic information systems (GIS) and human intelligence to raise public awareness and alert important actors about human right violations.
"NGOs can often respond more quickly and in some cases with wider reach than governments," said Lars Bromley, senior program associate in the Office of International Initiatives. "If we (AAAS) can help provide the NGOs with a similar information infrastructure to what governments have, they can assume much greater responsibility in preventing and responding to human rights violations."
Co-sponsored by the AAAS Science and Human Rights program, the Amnesty International USA Crisis Prevention & Response Unit, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Academy for Genocide Prevention, the event featured five panel members: Matthew Levinger, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Academy for Genocide Prevention; Paul D. Williams, senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, U.K.; Ariela Blätter, director of the Crisis Prevention and Response Center at Amnesty International; Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; and Bromley.
The use of satellite imagery is not new. Since the 1990s, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency have relied on satellite surveillance to monitor for violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Imagery has also been used to conduct damage assessments, draw ceasefire lines, establish demobilization lines, and to help decide where to place peacekeeping observation posts.
Although the United Nations has relied upon satellite intelligence to conduct peacekeeping missions, it does not have a centralized location in the Secretariat nor the mandate, according to some, to conduct surveillance of member nations in an effort to prevent human rights violations.
"Even if they were given the capacity to acquire satellite images, a number of member states, particularly in the Non-Aligned Movement, have expressed skepticism and concern about giving the U.N. a centralized intelligence service to interpret the information," said Williams, currently a visiting associate professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
NGOs have recently begun to combine satellite imagery with other political data including locations of roads, national borders, towns, photographs, and personal accounts of violence plotted to the town where it occurred.
"When satellite imagery and other data are combined, they greatly assist in monitoring human rights violations and aid advocacy and legal efforts to stop those violations," Bromley said.
He explained that satellite technology has many other uses beyond human rights monitoring, including the prevention of illegal fishing and poaching, improvement of reconstruction efforts after natural disasters, and fire detection and monitoring.
In October 2004, AAAS began to investigate how satellite technology and other resources can be used to monitor and prevent human rights violations, later receiving a $110,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in December 2005.
Soon after, the AAAS Science and Human Rights program teamed with Amnesty International, the U.N. Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop feasible ways to involve the scientific community in human rights monitoring.
"Technology like satellites and other scientific resources can provide unimpeachable evidence, unlike testimony which is easily refuted," Blätter said. "In addition, satellite images can attract and sustain media and political interest."
In late May 2006, AAAS released its first human rights report to rely on satellite imagery, presenting evidence that the government of Zimbabwe had destroyed entire settlements including the town of Porta Farm, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes.
Bromley believes that the field of satellite technology is rapidly evolving, with an increase in the number of high-resolution satellites put into orbit leading to more images at lower prices for both archived and new imagery.
Human rights experts hope that newer technologies will allow experts to devote more time to surveillance of "danger zones," or areas where crises are likely to develop.
When asked for specifics, Williams suggested that efforts could focus on areas around unstable regimes, nations conducting elections, countries suspected of building arms stockpiles, and regions with ethnic or religious minorities.
The expert panel believes that the biggest challenge for the human rights community may not be improving the quality of the imagery, but rather convincing the public of its reliability and its utility for demonstrating human rights abuses.
"How can we build trust within the public about the imagery?" Levinger asked. Bromley replied: "Transparency—allowing everyone access to the data."
Human Rights Day, observed internationally on 10 December, was established by the United Nations in 1950 to commemorate the 1948 United Nations General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court of Canada Justice, declared the 2006 Human Rights Day theme to be the elimination of poverty worldwide.
27 December 2006