Amnesty International taps tech to slow Darfur violence

Amnesty International USA will announce Wednesday a new effort to use satellite imagery and the Web to try to identify and stave off potential attacks against villagers in the Darfur region of Africa by Sudanese-government-backed militia.

The Eyes on Darfur project is the first time a human rights organization has used technology to try to prevent human rights violations, according to Amnesty International. While many organizations may be using technology to document human rights abuses in Darfur, Amnesty International will use high-resolution commercial satellite imagery to try to prevent attacks.

The project will use satellite imagery to identify potential signs of an imminent attack, such as militia troop movements, and then warn potential victims, said Ariela Blattner, director of Amnesty’s Crisis Prevention and Response Center.

Blattner is scheduled to unveil the project at the Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth at the University of California, Berkeley.

As part of the Eyes on Darfur project, Amnesty International will encourage visitors to the Web site to view the satellite images and post their thoughts about the situation, she added. The messages will be passed on to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, according to Blattner.

“Traditionally we shine our light on abuses that have occurred in the past,” she said. “We’re now for the first time inviting ordinary people to watch over vulnerable villages … that are at imminent risk of attack. We can warn the government of Sudan that we are watching these villages and that we expect them to be intact [in the coming weeks and months.]”

While Amnesty International first began using satellite imagery in 2004 to document the beginnings of the attacks on citizens in the Darfur region, those satellite images were crude and could identify only those locations where the Janjawid militia was setting fires to destroy village homes, Blattner said.

Today’s commercial, high-resolution satellite images will allow the organization to identify an object as small as two feet across, she added. Therefore, Amnesty International can use pictures of villages taken in near real time to identify the Janjawid’s distinct attack patterns, she added.

For example, she said that in the 12 villages Amnesty International has identified as vulnerable to attacks, the militia will usually first attack cattle or other parts of the village’s livelihood. The organization found that the militia returns several weeks later to damage structures and then several weeks after that to kill any villagers who haven’t fled, she added.

“This project makes it possible … for us to monitor in near real time these events,” she added. “I would hope that human rights eye in the sky becomes a general deterrent and puts a lot of human rights abusers under notice.” The Eyes on Darfur site also includes an archival feature, which shows villages that have been destroyed since the conflict began in 2003, Amnesty International said. For example, an image from 2004 shows a village with hundreds of huts; two years later, a satellite image shows the village in near total ruin.

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