Satellites can monitor volcanoes, map deforestation, and help
sell real estate. But can they document human-rights violations?
Yes, activists say.
Already, high-altitude images of Zimbabwe's destruction of a
settlement has increased pressure on the government to curb its
abuses. Now, human-rights groups are focusing on Darfur, Chad, and
Burma. In eastern Burma, for example, the government is accused of
aggressively attacking an ethnic minority.
Burma "is a black hole," says Jeremy Woodrum of the US Campaign
for Burma. "Media and aid agencies can go into Darfur in Sudan, but
they can't get into eastern Burma; it's totally off limits."
Even in such closed countries, satellites can detect military
destruction, the movement of refugees, even their living conditions.
They may be able to show the scale of government rebuilding and
whether some groups are benefiting more than others.
The idea of using satellites has intrigued activists for several
years, notes Ariela Blaetter, director of conflict prevention and
response for Amnesty International USA. Some organizations have used
commercial satellite images on rare occasions, she adds. "But this
new, unimpeachable technology has such a huge price tag" that the
community has been slow to adopt it.
A foundation grant and technical help from the American
Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington could speed
its use. The effort has been under way since this past December,
when the MacArthur Foundation handed the AAAS a $110,000 check to
help human rights groups use commercial satellite images to document
The first results appeared May 31, when the AAAS and Amnesty
International released before-and-after photos of Porta Farm, a
settlement the Zimbabwean government destroyed last June.
The 16-year-old settlement had boasted schools, a children's
center, and a mosque, according to Amnesty International's Kolawole
Olaniyan. It was home to between 6,000 and 10,000 mostly poor
Zimbabweans. The new photos showed the entire settlement destroyed
and abandoned. United Nations monitors noted that during the
demolition several people, including two children, were killed. The
government reportedly is trying to build new homes for the more than
700,000 displaced nationwide by last June's operation, but aid
workers say the number of new houses is extremely small compared
with the large number of displaced Zimbabweans waiting for shelter,
land, and jobs.
The satellite images, taken in June 2002 and again this past
April, offered key graphic evidence of what had happened. …