Justice For Syria: How Satellites Can Help

helicopters aleppo syria

Suspected attack helicopters at Aleppo airport. (c) 2012 GeoEye, produced by AAAS

Newly released satellite images of Aleppo show a highly militarized city, with dozens of roadblocks throughout the city and military vehicles operating in its streets. We used satellite images a couple of months ago to ring the alarm over the increased risk of turning a highly populated area, such as Aleppo, into a battlefield. Our warning turned out to be justified. The weeks that followed saw indiscriminate attacks that have killed and injured scores of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in northern Syria.

Today’s analysis, released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and based on imagery from August 9 and 23, provides a detailed follow up to our initial assessment from earlier in July. As the conflict in Syria escalates, the increased deployment of battlefield equipment and tactics in urban areas emerge in satellite images. Here are some of the key findings of the new analysis:
SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

State Dept.: no accountability yet for Sri Lanka war crimes

As my colleague Christoph Koettl mentioned in his earlier post on this site, the State Department today issued its follow-up report on war crimes in Sri Lanka.  Why a follow-up report?  Last October, the State Department issued a report describing over 300 reported human rights abuses (including war crimes) committed by both sides during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka.  That earlier report cited incidents documented by Amnesty International, among others, and was based on traditional and innovative evidence, including satellite imagery and aerial photographs.   Congress then instructed the State Dept. to issue a second report about what the Sri Lankan government has done to investigate these abuses, and to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts.  That second report by the State Dept. was issued today.

What’s the verdict?  No effective accountability yet by the Sri Lankan government.  The State Dept. describes how the Sri Lankan government has set up two bodies:  (1) a “Group of Eminent  Persons” to respond to the first State Dept. report, and (2) a reconciliation commission to examine the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers and subsequent events.  The State Dept. concludes that the Group of Eminent Persons (which has now been subsumed into the reconciliation commission) was ineffective.

As for the reconciliation commission, the State Dept. points out in its report that the commission has just gotten started but it does mention a couple concerns, among others:

(a) The chair of the commission has a serious conflict of interest.  He used to be Sri Lanka’s Attorney General.  His department hindered the workings of an earlier commission of inquiry (as documented in AI’s “Twenty Years of Make-Believe” report).

(b) Public statements by Sri Lankan officials, such as the Defence Secretary, have been to the effect that the Sri Lankan military didn’t commit any abuses.  In this context, it may be difficult for the reconciliation commission to do an effective job of investigating abuses.

There’s more in the State Dept. report, including discussion of the UN advisory panel and of the “execution video,” which I don’t have room to discuss here (at least, if I want to keep this to a reasonable length).

Amnesty and other organizations have been calling for an independent international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  After reading the latest State Department report, I think our call for such an investigation is only strengthened.  The victims of the abuses and their families shouldn’t have to wait for the reconciliation commission to fail to provide justice.  We need an international investigation now!  If you haven’t already, please sign our online petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking the UN to set up such an investigation.  Thanks!

Dude, Where's My House?

5 years ago today, the Zimbabwean government set out on a project dubbed “Operation Murambatsvina” (Restore Order). More than 700,000 people were left without a home or livelihood, or both, after the government of Zimbabwe began to destroy informal settlements all across the country. These forced evictions only exacerbated a situation already dire due to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people still struggle to survive in plastic shacks since their eviction from these settlements, while the government does little, if anything, to help them. Efforts to provide some shelters to victims have been complete failures and seem to have been abandoned completely.

It is a scandal that five years on, victims are left o survive in plastic shacks without basic essential services. The needs of these victims are at risk of being forgotten because their voices are consistently ignored – Cousin Zilala, Director of Amnesty International Zimbabwe

4 years ago, we also began using new technologies to document human rights abuses when we released satellite images of the destruction of Porta Farm, a settlement on the outskirts of Harare which the government destroyed in 2005. This was one of the first times Amnesty used satellite images to provide irrefutable evidence of the destruction of an entire community and was used in litigation for redress efforts.

Satellite images taken of Porta Farm community in Zimbabwe. Copyright DigitalGlobe 2010. CLICK ON IMAGE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Satellite images taken of Porta Farm community in Zimbabwe. Copyright DigitalGlobe 2010. CLICK ON IMAGE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Randall Kindle, Africa Program, contributed to this blog post

Science for Human Rights Program Unveils New Toy

AGM Countdown: In the run up to Amnesty International’s Annual General Meeting in New Orleans this weekend, the Science for Human Rights program will be posting a new blog entry every day this week. All of the projects presented this week—and many more—will be at display in New Orleans.

For this year’s Annual General Meeting, the Science for Human Rights Program (SHR) is unveiling a cool new toy. This new toy, which we’re calling the “SHR Explorer,” enables you to check out a selection of the satellite images we have acquired and analyzed over the years, and lets you really see the extent of human rights violations in all different parts of the world. By using the slider, you can really see the striking differences between before and after images taken of the same exact place.

Screenshot of the SHR Explore. Copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. CLICK IMAGE TO GO TO SITE

Screenshot of the SHR Explorer. Copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. CLICK IMAGE TO GO TO SITE

Images from Zimbabwe and Chad show the extent of housing demolitions in select areas of those countries. In both Porta Farm, Zimbabwe, and N’Djamena, Chad, housing demolitions have caused immeasurable pain and suffering to people who have been made homeless by their own government.

In Lebanon, Georgia and Nigeria, violence has caused widespread damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure. Satellite images of Beirut, Lebanon, appear to prove that Israeli forces used cluster bombs in civilian areas during the August 2006 conflict, and those of Tskhinvali, Georgia, show many missing rooftops as result of the war between Georgian and Russian forces in August 2008. In Nigeria (our most recent project) the images show how many structures in the city of Jos have been destroyed by fire during recent clashes in the region.

And in New Orleans, aerial photographs demonstrate the slow pace of reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The first aerial image shows the flood that happened right after Katrina hit, and the second image shows what the same area looks like 4 years later, in 2009.

The Explorer is really going to be a powerful new tool as we continue to document and monitor, and do advocacy and campaigning work on various human rights abuses all over the world.

Check it out today!

Satellite Images Show Fire Damage in Jos, Nigeria

Over the past decade, Nigeria has seen its fair share of violence. On January 17th, Nigeria came back into the headlines as violence erupted in the central city of Jos and in surrounding villages. Although there is disagreement over the exact number of people killed during January’s violence, most residents and aid workers estimate that around 400 people lost lives. Around 18,000 were displaced by the violence.

Using the power of satellite images, which were acquired and analyzed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we were able to document the impact of January’s violence on infrastructure in Jos. The image on the left depicts an area of Jos before the violence and the one on the right depicts the same area but after the main bouts of violence of January 2010. What you can see most clearly from these images is the widespread damage caused by fires in this neighborhood of Jos. And this is just one example. Satellite images of other areas of Jos showed similar damage. Throughout many neighborhoods of Jos, the damage to the physical environment reflects the violence suffered by the inhabitants of the area.

In imagery collected after the events of January 2010, this area of the city appears to have been extensively burned. (9.9397N, 8.8831E). ©2010 DigitalGlobe

In imagery collected after the events of January 2010, this area of the city appears to have been extensively burned. (9.9397N, 8.8831E). Before image: ©2010 DigitalGlobe & Google Earth. After image: ©2010 DigitalGlobe

 

 

Sadly, the story doesn’t stop here. On March 7th, attacks on predominantly Christian towns near Jos lead to the death of an estimated 200 people, most likely in retaliation for the violence of January, during which mostly Muslims were killed. Some estimates are even higher, suggesting that as many as 500 people may have died.

I am deeply concerned that there has been more inter-religious violence, with appalling loss of life. I appeal to all concerned to exercise maximum restraint. Nigeria’s political and religious leaders should work together to address the underlying causes and to achieve a permanent solution to the crisis in Jos - UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, March 8, 2010.

The communal violence in and around Jos is years-old. AIUSA joins the widespread calls for justice for these crimes through prompt investigations and prosecution of those responsible. The Nigerian government must fulfill its responsibility to provide security for those living in areas of conflict Nigeria. This includes ensuring that the Nigerian security forces respect human rights and comply with international standards on the use of force.

Juliette Rousselot contributed to this blog post.

Darfur: New Evidence of Attacks on Villages

Back in 2007, Amnesty International launched a ground breaking website, Eyes on Darfur, which showcased satellite evidence of attacks on villages in Darfur. The images demonstrated the ongoing insecurity in the region and the destruction and violence civilians are confronted with on a daily basis. The site also broke new ground by allowing the world to literally “watch over” 12 villages that were determined to be highly at risk but that had not yet been attacked.

Just a few weeks ago, we updated the satellite images on the Eyes on Darfur site and found that sadly, several of these at-risk villages have been attacked and at least partially destroyed. We were able to document that between January 2008 and March 2009, four of these villages were subject to attacks by Janjawid militias and Sudanese government forces, which destroyed many of the structures in those villages.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Don't Forget the Victims in Georgia

Now I don’t have a house. The weather is nice and I can sleep in the garden, but I don’t know what to do when the rain comes. Nobody is helping me.” A former teacher, Kazbek Djiloev, shared his hardship with us a few months ago as he stood before the ruins of his home in Tskhinvali. His house was one of many that were shelled during the recent Georgia-Russia conflict.

 

We captured this man’s story as an example of how such a military clash impacts civilians. He echoes the voices of thousands more civilian victims, many of whom are unable to return to their previous lives. Stories like Kazbek’s provide a human face to the evidence, including satellite imagery, which demonstrates the effect of the conflict on civilians.

 

Three months after the fighting broke out, 20,000 Georgians are still unable to return home because their homes were destroyed by rockets, looting and torching. Don’t forget them and their stories when you go home for the holidays this year.