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What can geospatial technologies do for the human rights community?

Several continuous developments over the past two decades have greatly increased the potential application of geospatial technologies to human rights issues and a range of other fields. The first is the decreasing cost of personal computing technology and the robust development of associated software?both proprietary and open source. The rapid growth of available geospatial data is a second factor. A third is the increasing amount of satellite sensors imaging the earth allowing for the availability of high-resolution satellite imagery commercially and publicly.

The potential of geospatial technologies for the international human rights community was highlighted by the September 2004 use of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State in confirming the extent of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The high resolution imagery, from the QuickBird satellite launched in 2001 by the Digital Globe Corporation (1) was used by these agencies to view and interpret conditions on the ground in Darfur when eyewitness reporting was difficult to verify. Used in conjunction with classified sources, analyses of the imagery led to confirmation of reports of widespread destruction of villages, livestock, and crops as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign. The imagery also proved effective in diplomatic and public information campaigns. This is notable in that USAID and the Department of State acquired operationally useful data from a non-military, commercial, and publicly available source.

Such imagery, together with other data and GIS, continues to support diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in Darfur and elsewhere. The U.S. Government, the United Nations (UN), foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations have found geospatial technologies to be vital in planning for and delivering humanitarian assistance. The Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit works to provide effective geospatial support to a range of partners in Darfur. Effective examples of regional activities include the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), which seeks to anticipate famine by analyzing crop and weather patterns, and the European RESPOND Consortium (2) which mitigates disasters and humanitarian crises by supplying needed geospatial data and technology support. The application of geospatial and other information technologies for humanitarian work has resulted in the establishment of professional networks (3) that share common tools and resources to maximize efficiency, with similar models adopted by many environmental and conservation groups (4) as well.

The human rights community has taken notice of these technologies, with several examples of their use arising in recent years. The QuickBird imagery used by the Department of State and USAID, together with other high-resolution imagery, has proven especially valuable as it can show damage to small houses, orchards, fields, and other features. Given the unequivocal time of image acquisition it can authoritatively document changes to these features, and in printed form the imagery helps corroborate and synthesize witness reports during interviews. Such imagery has been successfully used by Eritrea in presenting evidence of Ethiopian misconduct during the occupation of villages during their armed conflict. During hearings in The Hague at the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, Eritrea succeeded in using high resolution imagery, the only photographic evidence available for the area in question, in showing unlawful damage to homes, public buildings, and agriculture (5). Human Rights Watch has also explored applications of geospatial technologies in their work. Specifically, Human Rights Watch used high resolution imagery and other geospatial data to understand how and why civilians were killed or injured during Operation Iraqi Freedom (6). Human Rights Watch was also able to make use of an archive of high-resolution imagery to document the systematic destruction of homes by Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip (7). Amnesty International Denmark has conducted trial uses as well, contracting with an engineering firm to analyze low resolution Landsat 7 imagery. A further example is provided by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which combined high resolution imagery and defector interviews to produce an unprecedented and systemic study of the extensive North Korean political prison camp system (8). The Genocide Studies Program at Yale University has also long explored such applications in Cambodia, the Sudan, East Timor and other places. (9).

In April of 2007 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in collaboration with Google, launched the Crisis in Darfur mapping initiative which makes available a plethora of information on humanitarian issues in the Darfur region of the Sudan to the public via the Google Earth software interface (10). This example garnered much attention from the media and is a fine example of Internet-integrating mapping technologies and their important implications for human rights monitoring. Based on these examples, it is apparent that the potential of geospatial technologies for human rights work lie in their widespread dissemination and effective utilization by organizations around the world. Specifically, such dispersed organizations can serve as agents for targeting data and imagery collection efforts, and in turn be able to make use of that information in their public information and legal campaigns. Utilizing a common and well-regarded data source such as high resolution imagery has other benefits in that it helps human rights organizations present a unified message and coordinate activities based on the location of the events of interest.

Sources Cited

(1).See the USAID and DoS Humanitarian Information Unit at: Also see the Digital Globe QuickBird page:
(3) See for example the International Community on Information Systems for Crises Response and Management, at: Also see the UN ReliefWeb at:, and see MapRelief at:
(4) See for example the Society for Conservation GIS:
(5) See the Permanent Court of Arbitration records at:
(6) See the HRW report “Off Target” at:
(7) See the HRW report “Razing Rafah” at:
(8) See the HRNK report at:
(9) See
(10) See

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