New technology demonstrates extreme lack of progress in Gulf Coast reconstruction

Technology has been a driving force as of late, to document a variety of things related to human rights from political violence in Kenya, to the oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States, caused flooding and widespread damage to the Gulf Coast. More than 1,800 people from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama died in the storm. Approximately 1,000,000 people were displaced from the Gulf Coast region.

Nearly five years later, in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast, there is a continued lack of access to housing and health care, and issues related to the criminal justice system persist. Amnesty International is committed to raising awareness about the slow progress in housing recovery, as well as the demolition of public housing, and the problems of blight and homelessness in the city of New Orleans. Recent estimates of homelessness in New Orleans have ranged from nearly 10,000 individuals and families to 12,000. If so many are still homeless, where are houses being rebuilt, and who can actually afford them?

Now, thanks to technology, you can track the progress of Gulf Coast reconstruction with the Google Earth layer created by Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights (SHR) Program. These geo-referenced photos highlight the extent of the destruction and the lack of progress in rebuilding in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can download the kml file of the lower Ninth Ward and use geo-visualization software, such as Google Earth, to see for yourself the full extent of the damage and the amount of work that remains to be done.

AI’s Rebuilding the Gulf project has been active in working to protect human rights in the Gulf Coast by focusing on promoting a broader range of human rights concerns that arise in disaster affected areas. Learn more about our work in the Gulf Coast and take action to reform federal disaster legislation to ensure that the human rights of those impacted by future disasters are protected.



Sung In Marshall contributed to this post.

Now is the Time for Sri Lanka's Parliament to Drop Emergency Laws

Since 1971, Sri Lanka has been operating almost continuously under a State of Emergency. These emergency laws have granted state authorities sweeping powers of detention and have permitted the use of secret prisons, a practice that encourages human rights abuses like enforced disappearances, torture and death in custody, which could constitute crimes under international law. In the last thirty years, thousands of Sri Lankans have spent years in detention without trial.

The war is over. Perpetuation of the emergency is now just being used as a weapon against political opposition, and as a quick fix for poor law enforcement practices and a dysfunctional justice system – Madhu Malhotra, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program

During the last phase of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), we used satellite imagery to demonstrate the prison-like conditions displaced civilians faced, used aerial photography to demonstrate violations of international humanitarian law, and geovisualization tools to track the violence and growing humanitarian crisis. This information has helped us to campaign for the release of prisoners held under the emergency laws and for an end to the countless unmonitored human rights violations occurring.

Today, Sri Lanka’s first post-war parliament is meeting to discuss the next steps the country must take in the wake of its 27-year war. Now is the time for Sri Lanka’s parliament to press for the release of people still detained under these emergency laws, unless they are charged with an internationally recognized criminal offence, and are tried in regular civilian courts to international standards for fair trial.

Kristin Ghazarians contributed to this blog post

More Deaths in Northwestern Pakistan?!

Up to 71 civilians have reportedly been killed this past weekend in the Pakistani region on the border with Afghanistan. Residents from the Tirah Valley village said that the dead and wounded were civilians with no connections to the region’s militant groups.

This is just one example of many reports of civilian casualties that have reached various media outlets, throughout the past few years. It reiterates the toll that the conflict in Northwestern Pakistan has taken (and is currently taking) on civilian lives.

The Northwestern region of Pakistan, which is on the Afghan border, is very difficult to access. However, via Amnesty’s just released Eyes on Pakistan project, experts and activists alike can “access” this isolated region. This site helps to visualize the trends of the conflict that prove that Pakistan is not purely a military playground. It’s a human rights crisis.

More information to follow, so please stay tuned.

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!

Mapping the U.S. Maternal Health Care Crisis

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 new blog entries throughout the week. All of the projects presented this week—and many more—will be on display in New Orleans.

On March 12, 2010, we released Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Crisis in the USA, our groundbreaking report on maternal health in the United States. Deadly Delivery lays out a clear case for the ways in which the U.S. health system is broken, and how we can fix it to fulfill the right of all women to maternal health.

Map of US maternal mortality ratios, based on information in Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Crisis in the USA. © Amnesty International. Produced by AAAS. <strong>CLICK TO SEE FULL MAP.</strong>

Map of US maternal mortality ratios, based on information in Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Crisis in the USA. (c) Amnesty International. Produced by AAAS. Click to see full map.


One of the most shocking facts, illustrated in this map, is that the numbers vary immensely from state to state. A woman in Washington, DC, is almost 30 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Maine. Maine is one of only five states (the others being Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont) that have met the Healthy People 2010 goal of 4.3 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Most states’ ratios are far above that, and maternal health statistics in the USA have not improved in 20 years.

Inequalities abound. Amnesty International researchers found that women in the United States faced barriers to quality health care that included discrimination, language barriers, cost, bureaucratic hurdles, shortages of health care providers, and a lack of standardized national protocols to prevent and respond to life-threatening complications. Women of color are disproportionately affected, as are rural women, women in the inner cities, and women who do not speak English. African American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications than white women.

With a map like the one above, some of these disparities become immediately apparent. With such blatant inequalities from state to state, the United States needs better coordination and accountability on maternal health at the national level.

That’s why Amnesty International is calling on Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and President Obama to create an Office of Maternal Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. The office would ensure comprehensive data collection and effective nationwide review; ensure access to timely prenatal care; issue evidence-based protocols to prevent, recognize and respond to the leading pregnancy complications; encourage home visits after childbirth; vigorously enforce federal nondiscrimination laws; and recommend regulatory and legislative changes to ensure quality maternal care for all women.

Take action now by writing to Secretary Sebelius!

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.

Girls' Education Under Attack in Northwestern Pakistan

Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released their “Education under Attack” report, in which they have experts discuss the incidence of politically and ideologically motivated attacks on teachers, students and school buildings throughout the world. The report includes both a case study and a country report on Pakistan, both of which paint a stark picture of the impact of the Taliban on education in northwestern Pakistan.

Young girls and men queue separately for cooked rations in Jalala camp, Pakistan, 17 May 2009. Copyright Amnesty International

Young girls and men queue separately for cooked rations in Jalala camp, Pakistan, 17 May 2009. Copyright UNHCR/H. Caux

The report tells us that between 2007 and March 2009, 108 schools were fully destroyed, an additional 64 were partially damaged, and 40,000 children, including 23,000 girls, were deprived of their education. This is occurring in the context of a ruthless campaign by the Taliban against girls’ education, which is part of a larger campaign to impose their strict social rules and norms on the people of Northwestern Pakistan. As UNESCO’s report clearly states, “The Taliban in Swat Valley, Pakistan, left no ambiguity about their intent to target girls’ education.”

As the Pakistani military celebrates the recent capture of several key Taliban leaders, it is important to remember the impact of the conflict between Taliban armed groups and the Pakistani military in the region on civilians. Clearly, the Taliban have been the cause of countless human rights abuses against civilians, including attacks on education. But any government military strategy aimed at countering the Taliban must place human rights concerns at the forefront.

Documenting Housing Demolitions for Dummies

This posting is part of our Forced Evictions in Africa Series.

New report documents housing demolitions and forced evictions in N’Djamena, Chad.

New report documents housing demolitions and forced evictions in N’Djamena, Chad. Photo credit goes to Patrick Fort/AFP/Getty Images.

A few days ago we published a new report on housing demolitions and forced evictions in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Here is a little background info about how to conduct such a project.

1. Becoming aware of the problem
In my case, that meant reading the news. IRIN published an article this past January, describing the frightening scale of housing demolitions in N’Djamena. A few weeks before, Amnesty International had published a comprehensive report on human rights violations in connection with the attack by armed opposition groups on N’Djamena in February 2008. It included a chapter on housing demolitions and forced evictions. This is the key passage for me in the report:

Official figures from the N’Djaména municipal government state that 1,798 compounds were destroyed in 11 different neighbourhoods. It would appear however that there were evictions beyond those 11 neighborhoods. For example, Amnesty International documented extensive housing destruction in the neighbourhood of Farcha, which does not appear on the list of neighbourhoods provided to Amnesty International delegates by municipal officials. (…) The municipal government’s figures are clearly inadequate. Beyond the incomplete figure of 1,798 compounds destroyed in 11 neighbourhoods, no official figures have been gathered. There are no figures indicating the number of buildings in each compound and no information as to how many people lived in each house and/or compound.

Now compare a Human Rights Watch press release (yes, these are two different documents):

According to documents from the office of the mayor of N’Djamena obtained by Human Rights Watch, municipal authorities destroyed 1,798 homes in 11 neighborhoods in the capital during the 30-day state of emergency that ended on March 15. Human Rights Watch saw hundreds of demolished structures in two neighborhoods in the capital that were not included in the official figures, making it likely that the total number of homes destroyed exceeds 2,000. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 10,000 people have been left homeless by the mass evictions. Many of those Chadians who fled N’Djamena following the February coup attempt returned to find that their homes had been destroyed.

2. Analyzing satellite images
In order to provide some of the missing information described in the above quoted excerpts, we ordered satellite images from N’Djamena from 3 different points in time: January 2008, November 2008 and January 2009. We compared and analyzed the images and thus clearly documented the shocking pace of housing demolitions: In a 12-month period, the government had demolished 3,700 homes and businesses, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless.

3. Sending in the research troops
While the satellite images could provide us with hard numbers of homes demolished, they could not tell us which demolitions were clearly illegal. Our investigators on the ground gathered additional evidence, took photographs and collected testimonies. For example, they learned that the residents in the neighborhood of Chagoua 2 had lodged a complaint in court, which ruled that planned demolitions should cease, pending a final decision. Despite this order, the mayor of N’Djamena continued to demolish the houses.

Abakar Sakin, who has lost his motorcycle business in N'Djamena. (c) AI

Abakar Sakin, who has lost his motorcycle business in N'Djamena. (c) AI

Another story our researchers collected is about two business owners: Abakar Sakin, a motorcycle mechanic, and Ibrahim Abdulayhe Bulako, an auto mechanic, had operated their businesses in the 6th block in the neighborhood of Farcha for 25 years and 23 years respectively. Abakar Sakin employed four others and Ibrahim Abdulayhe Bulako employed five. They were given less than 48 hours notice before their homes, where they operated their businesses, would be destroyed. They lost everything associated with their trades and have received no compensation.

4. Publishing the Results and Taking Action
The analysis of the satellite images combined with on the ground investigations allowed us to show a very clear – and distressing – picture of the scale of housing demolitions and forced evictions in N’Djamena. Our brief report (pdf) gives a good summary of our findings, and you can also find more information on the Science for Human Rights project’s website. And if you feel as angry as me about this outrageous human rights violation, let the Chadian government know.