The effectiveness of human rights monitors in the context of complex emergencies is limited by two recurrent challenges. First, observers often struggle to gain access to active conflict zones. Second, the evidence collected is typically dominated by anecdotal narratives and eyewitness accounts that give powerful--though limited--snapshots of emerging or past human rights violations. These individual stories are at the centerpiece of any advocacy and public campaigning efforts; however, they do not present the systematic or comprehensive research that often proves powerful to both directly impact the situation on the ground and to support post-conflict accountability mechanisms. New technologies and methodologies increasingly support traditional human rights research in overcoming these limitations. One of the clearly demonstrated new tools for human rights research is remote sensing, specifically the use of space-based platforms, which has been employed by Amnesty International and others in such diverse crises and regions as Darfur, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, and South Ossetia. Looking at these cases provides us with some useful lessons and exposes both benefits and limitations of the use of remote sensing in conflict zones for the benefit of human rights research and advocacy.
Watchdogs in the Fog of War
When violence escalated in June 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan, a worldwide audience received a glimpse of the violence through pictures and news stories of burning homes and fleeing women and children. In an attempt to document the ongoing abuses, international and human rights organizations collected testimonies from survivors and those who fled. What many people did not see were the large SOS signs that were set up by citizens in the city of Osh in as-of-then intact neighborhoods. These SOS messages were peculiar; the size of the signs--and the simple fact that they were facing the sky--served as both a clear sign of the fear and insecurity faced by the people of Osh, and the implicit assumption that the target audience for the SOS signs were observing from above. In total, Amnesty International with its partners at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) exposed more than 116 SOS signs put up on roads or sports fields throughout Osh. Additionally, comparative analysis of before and after satellite imagery revealed widespread destruction of entire neighborhoods in Osh; 1,640 homes or other buildings were damaged or destroyed through arson attacks. This analysis added a comprehensive damage assessment to the anecdotal evidence from the ground and provided valuable evidence that can and must be accounted for through justice mechanisms.
The "fog of war" more often than not obscures events in conflict from a global audience. This shroud endangers non-combatants and others protected by the laws of the Geneva Convention by allowing armed actors relative impunity in their manner of operations. This impunity is strengthened when a conflict zone is remote, when there are multiple armed actors and few external observers, and when information outflow is limited as a result of natural or political barriers. Even with the presence of external observers, those on the ground who are in a position to collect information about a conflict are often unable to travel in any meaningful way, are restricted to the locale that safety or logistical constraints permit, and are heavily reliant on second-hand testimony.
Likewise, human rights NGOs or international monitors charged with the observation of armed conflict face similar limitations on their "field of vision." In the following pages, we detail the increasing use of remote sensing technologies that allow external parties--human rights monitors in particular--to cut through the fog of war, follow the progress of conflict, and, most importantly, document the worst violations of international humanitarian law and other criminal acts. …