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Satellites can track human rights abuses

Last updated: 18 April, 2011
Washington, April 18, (IANS):

Satellites that helped us gather real-time data from the most inaccessible and hostile places on earth can also help us track human rights abuses that cause misery to millions of people around the world.

Human rights violations can be monitored by inferring into the digital images that satellites transmit to earth. Experts believe this technique could one day help us to prevent such atrocities.

US researcher Lars Bromley has proved its effectiveness when he watched the final days of the Sri Lankan conflict unfold with the help of satellites peering down from above. Bromley scrolled through digital satellite photos, measuring 16 feet by 16 feet, in a lab in Washington, as part of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Christian Science Monitor reported.
Bromley, a geographer, wanted to determine if the Sri Lankan Army was attacking a

civilian safety zone during the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. Since the photos were not sufficiently fine-grain to reveal corpses, Bromley and his teamfocused on other damage like shattered buildings and mortar craters in places where refugees had previously gathered, the Monitor said.


The rectangular grids of Tamil Tiger cemeteries grew every day in the new photos, revealing dozens of new graves. The Sri Lankan government denied targeting civilian areas.

One of Bromley's team members who studied meteor craters on Mars noticed sprays of soil kicked up from mortar craters. The orientation of those sprays allowed him to extrapolate the trajectory of incoming shells - and ultimately, trace them back to Sri Lankan Army positions, according to the Monitor.

The Worldview 1 satellite built by the Colorado-based company Digital Globe, supplied much of the imagery that Bromley used in Sri Lanka. It orbits Earth at 17,000 mph and photographs a 10-mile by 60-mile strip of land at 20-inch resolution in 25 seconds.

The fact that information still got out so quickly from a region off-limits to outsiders is testament that satellites have made the world more accessible than ever. Since 1999, nearly a dozen commercial imaging satellites were launched into orbit by companies that sell imagery to governments and organisations involved in urban planning, telecommunications, environment and human rights.

People are still learning new ways to use the data. AAAS had documented home demolitions by Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe's regime in its first satellite project in 2005. Burning of hundreds of villages in Darfur was revealed in a 2007 project. Others have probed abuses in Myanmar, Gaza, North Korea, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After anti-government protests erupted in the Arab world, human rights organisations started reviewing imagery from Libya, Egypt, and other locations, the Monitor said. Analysts who examined photos of the Kyrgyz city of Osh last July saw something that shocked them: "SOS" was painted on roads and fields in more than 100 places ravaged by ethnic violence. Such events highlight the limits of satellites.

Patrick Meier, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, in California, who co-founded the global network Crisis Mappers, said: "You're not just documenting human rights abuses so you can bring someone to justice in The Hague three years later." The question is "can you provide tactical data for people to act on and get out of harm's way?", the Monitor quoted him as saying.

Human rights isn't the only area in which satellites have unforeseen impact. Satellites launched to study basic science questions have also located natural resources that could help poor countries, said the report last week.

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