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Help Amnesty International track human rights violations via satellite

Amnesty International USA is using powerful satellite cameras to monitor highly vulnerable villages in war-torn Darfur – the first-ever technological capability by human rights defenders to track possible targets of attack, prevent new atrocities and save lives. The human rights organization is inviting ordinary people worldwide to help protect 12 villages by visiting the Eyes on Darfur project website (www.eyesondarfur.org) and put Sudanese President al-Bashir on notice that the areas are being watched around the clock.

“Despite four years of outrage over the death and destruction in Darfur, the Sudanese government has refused worldwide demands and a U.N. resolution to send peacekeepers to the region,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). “Darfur needs peacekeepers to stop the killing. In the meantime, we are taking advantage of satellite technology to tell President al-Bashir that we will be watching closely to expose any new violations. Our goal is to continue to put pressure on Sudan to allow the peacekeepers to deploy and to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable civilians on the ground in Darfur.”

Ariela Blätter, director of the Crisis Prevention and Response Center for AIUSA, who led development of Eyes on Darfur, will describe the project and its capabilities at the Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth at the University of California at Berkeley on Wednesday, June 6. Blätter will give a presentation from 2-3:30 pm Pacific time.

“Our goal is monitoring the current frontline of the conflict and taking steps to protect civilians at risk,” said Blätter. “Eyes on Darfur gives ordinary people a way to directly help protect civilians in Darfur.”

Unlike other online projects about Darfur, which only document previous destruction using older satellite images, Eyes on Darfur uniquely adds up-to-date images, which create the ongoing capacity to protect human rights by allowing activists, experts and others to track developments on the ground as they occur in villages considered to be immediately at risk.

According to Blätter, new images of the same villages are being added within days of each other. This time frame offers the potential for spotting new destruction or even preventing attacks. For example, if researchers spot soldiers massing in an area, warnings could be issued to humanitarian officials on the ground through satellite phones. “The technology allows Amnesty International to expand its traditional role of shining a light on human rights violations,” said Blätter. “Now, we can expand our reach through technology to try to prevent more suffering.”

In the event that violations are revealed, the images also could be sent to international courts to be used to prosecute those responsible, said Blätter.

Eyes on Darfur takes satellite technology to the next step in human rights work – adding the essential up-to-date images that give activists the capacity to sound an early alarm about emerging violations on the ground – for example, attacks by government-backed Janjawid militias, which are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Darfuris since 2003.

Blätter worked with noted researchers to identify vulnerable areas, by virtue of their proximity to important resources like water supplies, because they have been threatened by militias or because of other attacks nearby.

“The technology is unimpeachable,” said Blätter. “Human rights organizations using satellite images can sound the alarm and mobilize millions quickly, before governments even admit there is a problem. This is a life and death situation for Darfuris. Our hope is that this technology will prevent further deaths.” Commercial satellites have been providing images to AIUSA under contract and will continue to do so through the coming fall as resources allow.

Amnesty International worked closely on the project with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which offered expertise on satellite imagery and other cutting edge geospatial technologies. The Save Darfur Coalition provided financial support for the project.

The images from commercial satellites can reveal visual information about conditions on the ground for objects as small as two feet across. According to Lars Bromley, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Project who advised Blätter on technical matters, the photos could show destroyed huts, massing soldiers or fleeing refugees.

Amnesty International has been at the forefront of efforts to wed human rights work with satellite technology. For example, AIUSA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights joined in a ground-breaking project in 2006 to document the destruction of a settlement by the Zimbabwean government. The groups presented evidence that the government destroyed entire settlements, including the town of Porta Farm, forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

Eyes on Darfur also includes an archival feature, which shows destroyed villages since the conflict began in 2003 and includes expert testimony. For example, an image of the village of Donkey Dereis in south Darfur taken in 2004 shows an intact landscape with hundreds of huts. Two years later, a satellite image shows the near total destruction of the villages – 1,171 homes gone and the landscape overgrown with vegetation.

Eyes on Darfur adds a new component to Amnesty International’s global campaign to stop the killing in Darfur. In 2003 and 2004, Amnesty International supplied some of the earliest documentation – eyewitness testimony from the ground – that warned of the impending humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. A critical mission in 2004 focused world attention and galvanized opinion about the brutal conditions in the country. Amnesty International’s exposure of horrific violence – the torching of villages and the campaign of sexual violence against women and girls – built awareness worldwide of the brutality.

Amnesty continues to send frequent research missions to the region, including two so far in 2007 with two others planned, and lobbies highly-placed government leaders and the United Nations to demand action to stop the violence.

Amnesty International USA




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