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Satellites Offer New Window Into Documenting, Preventing Genocide

March 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Tom Bearden reports on the push to use private satellites to document genocide from space.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Trying to stop genocide by taking pictures from space.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has the story.

TOM BEARDEN: Analysts say this picture documents the deliberate burning of some 300 residential buildings in the Abyei region of Sudan. It was taken by a privately-owned satellite for an organization called Satellite Sentinel, and then posted on the Internet.

Satellite Sentinel says it shows a fresh wave of violence in the hotly contested region between South Sudan, which just voted for independence, and the government in the north. Some of these areas are effectively off-limits to journalists, and sometimes the public never sees ground-level footage of what’s happening in places like this.

In this case, however, Satellite Sentinel managed to obtain this video confirming that parts of two villages overflown by the satellite were indeed burned. The hope is that distributing these images might prevent the violence from escalating.

Jonathan Hutson is the communications director for the Enough Project, one of several activist groups supporting Satellite Sentinel.

JONATHAN HUTSON, Enough Project: Well, for the first time outside the national security sector, non-profits are now making use of high-resolution satellite imagery to track the buildup and movements of troops near a border.

We can keep an eye on it and give some early warning to the world, and give people a chance to get involved, to pressure policy-makers, to press for quick and immediate responses.

TOM BEARDEN: Hutson says actor George Clooney came up with the idea to keep an eye on Sudan last year after he toured the southern region while people were voting for independence.

The ongoing fear is that the Sudanese military will try to use force to prevent the separation that voters approved overwhelmingly. Clooney and other Hollywood figures provided $750,000 to operate the surveillance project for the first six months.

Hutson says the Sudanese government has taken notice.

JONATHAN HUTSON: After we launched the project on Dec. 29, the government of Sudan put out an official press release, and they decried Clooney for being a celebrity activist and for using his name, his cash and his clout to focus world attention on the tense situation to try to get help. They didn’t like it one bit. But then, you can’t please all the war criminals all the time.

MAN: Three, two, one, ignition and liftoff of the Delta II rocket carrying WorldView-2, the most agile commercial imaging satellite ever flown.

TOM BEARDEN: Just a decade ago, the ability to take high-resolution pictures from space was the exclusive province of governments. But in 2000, private companies like DigitalGlobe started launching their own eyes in the sky.

The Longmont, Colo.,-based company suffered two failures aboard Russian rockets before a successful launch aboard a U.S. vehicle. Satellite Sentinel is one of many clients that tell DigitalGlobe where to look, and then purchases the resulting pictures.

The company operates its three satellites from this control room about 60 miles north of Denver. This is also where the images are first analyzed. Some of the employees who do those assessments used to work for government agencies.

Steve Wood is vice president of the analysis center. He says there’s an even larger goal: to prevent future crimes against humanity.

STEPHEN WOOD, DigitalGlobe: I mean, the Satellite Sentinel project is designed to see events before they will happen, and to make sure that the world knows that it’s watching and this time that the — to try and do what we can, as a — really as a group to try and prevent another genocide and another event like Darfur.

Really, the strength of what commercial satellite imagery can do is, it provides greater openness and transparency, because the data is unclassified and can be shared.

TOM BEARDEN: DigitalGlobe is also keeping an electronic eye on the entire region, documenting the uprisings in several North African countries.

STEPHEN WOOD: So this is the — the state and radio-TV building in downtown Cairo, the scene of quite a bit of the protests. And you can see very clearly here these are all tanks and APCs, and a roadblock down here as well, where they have set up a perimeter all around this facility.

And so, very clearly, with the detail of the resolution of our imagery, you’re able to get a very good and accurate perspective on just what the context of the scene is.

TOM BEARDEN: Wood says the resolution is good enough to pick out this specific group of people in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain.

STEPHEN WOOD: Interestingly enough, a very large group of people forming up here in this dark area — let me highlight it here — this dark area here is what we believe are actually women dressed in burqas.

TOM BEARDEN: Hutson says, for the first time, ordinary people can have access to near-real-time information on the world’s most dangerous places.

JONATHAN HUTSON: We’re not telling the president of the United States something that he doesn’t already know. We’re not telling leaders of other nations something that they don’t already know through their own satellites.

What’s new and transformative here is that we can share high-resolution commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, so that you can see the same information that lands on the president’s desk during his daily Sudan briefings.

TOM BEARDEN: The Enough Project reports that the people who live in Abyei region of Sudan are now fleeing their homes for villages further south. They have issued an urgent call for action.

All of these images, now distributed through social media and the Internet, are tools helping shape public opinion, which is proving to be an increasingly powerful force here and abroad.