Sudan: Satellite images provide Irrefutable and nearly immediate proof of war crimes

Rebel soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLA-North) inspect a large crater caused by bombing runnings near the Kauda airstrip in South Kordofan province on July 6, 2011.
Trevor Snapp

WASHINGTON — The wall of impunity that has long protected war criminals is crumbling. And that process is now accelerating through the use of technology.

Atrocities committed during military actions or in campaigns of ethnic cleansing used to be routinely denied, disputed, and covered up for years. With the advent of the International Criminal Court a decade ago, investigations and charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide began to come more quickly and the accused perpetrators have been put under a harsh spotlight while the court's process moved forward.

Now, through innovative use of satellite imagery and analysis, these crimes are being exposed in near real time.

The latest war criminal to be caught in the act is a serial offender: Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. The attacks launched during the past three months by Bashir’s armed forces on Abyei, the contested border region between Sudan and the new Republic of South Sudan, and in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state have the hallmarks of the tactics his regime used in Darfur. Similar attacks on civilians, forced displacements, and destruction of livelihoods in Darfur eventually led to charges of genocide against Bashir by the International Criminal Court. 

Unlike in previous cases of attacks on civilians by Bashir’s regime, we don’t need to wait for fragmentary reports from the ground to be investigated to piece together what happened. This time, we have publicly available satellite imagery that shows what happened almost in real time. The Satellite Sentinel Project, initiated by George Clooney and the Enough Project, provided nearly immediate evidence of this new wave of crimes committed against the civilian population in and around Abyei town.

Now the project has provided satellite images of apparent mass graves in South Kordofan which corroborate eyewitness accounts from the ground of systematic killings and dumping of bodies into recently dug trenches.

The normal campaigns of disinformation by the Government of Sudan are easily refuted by the Sentinel Satellite Project's reports. High-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite imagery, captured for the project, showed the presence of at least 10 Sudan Armed Forces main battle tanks, mobile artillery pieces, and infantry fighting vehicles in Abyei town.

Analysis of the images by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative also revealed that up to one-third of civilian structures in Abyei town had been burned and corroborated the reports of mass displacement of tens of thousands of civilians.

In a new report on evidence of mass killings and mass graves in South Kordofan, the stark and compelling satellite images are not easily dismissed the way anecdotal reports from the ground have been in the past. The satellite imagery can only be optimally effective when it is used in conjunction with multiple, verified sources who witness the alleged crimes. In the case of South Kordofan, a number of brave eyewitnesses have put their lives at risk to get information out of the region that can be used in coordination with the imagery.

When the Satellite Sentinel Project was launched on December 29, 2010, many observers were skeptical. The project was dismissed as a gimmick by some who did not believe it could produce any reliable information. As the project has come into full operation, it has demonstrated that through careful, objective analysis of imagery combined with on-the-ground reporting and policy expertise, the project can constitute an important means of compiling evidence of war crimes.

Of course, the use of satellite imagery to monitor crisis situations is not new.

Governments have long used this technology to supplement other forms of information-gathering. What is new is that this information is so quickly made available to the public and particularly to those activists who follow human rights situations and advocate for policies that address them. The public pressure that can be generated by projects like the satellite project has the potential to force governments to acknowledge what is happening on the ground.

"With the advance of modern technology, particularly those technologies that were once unavailable to nongovernmental organizations, and the proliferation of social media, these governments can no longer sweep such actions 'under the rug'," said David Crane, former Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. 

The evidence presented by Sentinel Satellite Project and other sources makes clear that the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation into the Khartoum regime’s actions in Darfur should be expanded to include Abyei. The U.S. government should push the United Nations Security Council to authorize such an expanded mandate. 

"The Satellite Sentinel Project has provided irrefutable and nearly immediate evidence of the new wave of crimes committed against the civilian population in and around Abyei town," said Michael Newton, former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes. "No government or international organization can plausibly plead ignorance or misinformation in the face of the photographic evidence available online and in the SSP report."

An independent team of international experts should be dispatched to Abyei and South Kordofan to investigate the alleged crimes, preserve evidence and gather witness testimony. That traditional information gathering on the ground cannot be replaced by the use of satellite imagery, but with the complementary findings of the satellite project now in play, Bashir and other war criminals are going to have a much harder time getting away with their crimes.

John C. Bradshaw is Executive Director of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group in Washington, D.C. Charlie Clements, MD, is Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.