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AAAS Geospatial Analysis Confirms Destruction of Towns, Houses in Eastern Ethiopia
The town of Labigah: 26 September 2005 (top) and 28 February 2008 (bottom)
[Images © 2008 DigitalGlobe]
An analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery by AAAS has helped confirm evidence that the Ethiopian military has attacked civilians and burned towns and villages in eight locations across the remote Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia.
The images and analysis provided crucial corroboration for a 130-page report released today in Nairobi, Kenya, by Human Rights Watch following a four-month investigation, which also used eyewitness accounts to demonstrate the attacks on tens of thousands of ethnic-Somali Muslims living in the East African country.
Lars Bromley, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), obtained and analyzed several "before" and "after" satellite images of villages identified by Human Rights Watch as possible locations of human rights violations. Of the imaged sites, eight bore signs consistent with the attacks described, primarily in villages and small towns in the Wardheer, Dhagabur, and Qorrahey Zones.
"This use of geospatial technologies demonstrates how science and technology can enhance human rights documenting and reporting," said SHRP Director Mona Younis. "AAAS, along with other organizations, is committed to identifying and developing new and practical science-based solutions to human rights challenges, and our geospatial technologies work is one example of that."
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said that because Ethiopian authorities regularly deny human rights observers access to the Ogaden region, his organization teamed with AAAS to corroborate nearly 100 eyewitness testimonies collected in neighboring Somalia and Kenya.
"The Ethiopian authorities frequently dismiss human rights reports, saying that the witnesses we interviewed are liars and rebel supporters," Bouckaert said. "But it will be much more difficult for them to dismiss the evidence presented in the satellite images, as images like that don't lie."
AAAS has pioneered the use of geospatial technology in human rights cases and has helped human rights groups document widespread abuses in Zimbabwe, Burma, Chad, and the Darfur region of Sudan.
In 2006, AAAS analyzed satellite images of Porta Farm, a settlement located just west of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare for an Amnesty International report that found the government had leveled the entire community and forced thousands of its residents to relocate as part of a campaign against government opponents.
In late 2007, AAAS released a report identifying 25 sites throughout eastern Burma (also known as Myanmar) showing significant village destruction, forced relocations, and a growing military presence following opposition to the ruling junta. Relying on Free Burma Rangers, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, and the Karen Human Rights Group for on-the-ground information, the report documented attacks from 2005 through the report's release.
AAAS analysis of the Ethiopia images was underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has been a core supporter of SHRP since its establishment in 1977.
Since 2000, commercial vendors have offered high-resolution satellite images taken from about 450 kilometers above Earth of almost anywhere on the planet. Once a site is photographed, the satellite company will add the image to its archive and make it available for resale. Bromley said images range in price from $250 for an archived image, to upwards of $2,000 for new images of an area that hadn't previously been studied by private satellites.
Bromley said the imaging of Ogaden is an indicator of the technology's power because the region "may well be the most isolated place on earth, save perhaps the densest parts of the Congolese or Amazon rainforests." With only a limited number of dirt roads leading into the sparsely populated, arid, 400,000-square-kilometer region filled with difficult, rocky terrain and heavy brush, it is a challenge for human rights observers to get into the communities and evaluate the destruction.
For the report, Bromley obtained images of the Ogaden region from two satellite vendors. The first, GeoEye, operates the Ikonos satellite that can view images one meter long; it has an eight-year archive of images. The second company, DigitalGlobe, operates the WorldView and QuickBird satellites that can view features as small as 50 centimeters long, but it has a smaller archive.
Bromley said that GeoEye's extensive archives make their satellite useful for "before" images, which the detailed resolution of DigitalGlobe's satellites are preferred for "after" image requests.
Beyond contributing to the Human Rights Watch project, Bromley and AAAS have completed a separate report on the scientific and technical issues surrounding geospatial technology as an instrument for monitoring human rights in Ogaden and elsewhere.
Available online, AAAS's report discusses how weather, towns with multiple names and similar spellings, the lack of archival imagery, and the inability of satellites to capture some crimes, including kidnapping and murder, posed obstacles for Bromley's analysis.
In their reports, both AAAS and Human Rights Watch also identified the nomadic lifestyle of the Ogaden people as a significant challenge for the project. While some towns are considered permanent, others can grow, shrink, or relocate—sometimes with different names—making image comparison very difficult.
Bromley added that the relatively small home sizes "challenge the limits of commercial satellite sensors." Despite being able to view objects as small as 50 centimeters long with DigitalGlobe's satellites, a lot of things "look only like little black squares" unless you have previous knowledge of the structure, he said.
Comparing images of the town of Labigah, for example, AAAS's report found that about 40 structures identified in a September 2005 image had been removed—likely by burning—in an updated image from last February 2008. The analysis corroborates the Human Rights Watch report in which an eyewitness said the Ethiopian army "went into every village and set it on fire."
While the Ogaden area is located in Ethiopia, its residents are ethnic Somalis as are people in neighboring Somalia. Following Somalia's unsuccessful attempts in the 1970s to integrate the region into its borders, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a ethnic Somali insurgency, formed, seeking secession or self-determination for the region. Since then, the ONLF has launched attacks in Eastern Ethiopia. In response to ONLF's attacks, news reports and humans rights organizations report that the Ethiopian government has restricted commercial traffic and humanitarian operations in the region, razed villages, and targeted civilians.
Bouckaert added that, beyond their evidentiary value, the images send a direct and powerful message to abusive governments that try to keep human rights investigators out.
"They can deny us access on the ground," he said, "but they can't prevent us from still telling the truth about what is happening inside."
12 June 2008