As Russian forces continue their efforts to regain control over the breakaway republic of Chechnya, fleeing refugees continue to tell stories of indiscriminate shelling, looting, and other human-rights abuses. But Moscow maintains its troops only target "terrorists" and that it is doing all it can to prevent civilian casualties.
As in other areas where access is restricted, claims and counterclaims are hard to verify.
"There is no one on the ground, not even journalists," says Susan Osnos, associate director of New York based Human Rights Watch.
But new commercial high-resolution satellites could be part of the solution. According to Ms. Osnos, such satellites could be used to check on whether civilian targets are being destroyed by advancing Rus-sian troops. "This is a perfect example," she says. "It would be great to have satellite images."
Two months ago the world's first commercial 1-meter resolution satellite, Ikonos, was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It was actually the second attempt: An earlier version crashed after takeoff in April. Before New Year's Eve, the US company behind the $700 million project, Space Imaging, plans to start selling images of any place on the globe over the Internet.
Images from the satellite are clear enough to distinguish objects on the ground no larger than 1-by-1 meter, according to Tim Brown, a satellite expert with the independent Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Although a resolution of 1 meter is insufficient for seeing individual people, it is good enough to detect objects such as cars, small houses, fires, and troop deployments. The satellite is able to acquire an image of the same spot once every three days and downlink it to ground stations. Since the ground stations are situated near the poles, over which the satellite passes 14 times a day, images can be made available to customers in a few hours or days.
And while the defense community uses spy satellites to look at hot spots such as Chechnya as a matter of course, "the utility in the NGO [nongovernmental organization] community is not realized yet," Mr. Brown says.
This up-and-coming discipline will eventually be explored by "imagery activists," predicts John Baker, space policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a Washington think tank. "It is a new group empowered by public access," Mr. Baker says. "They won't solve problems themselves, but they can make governments focus on the problems."
Relying on the Pentagon
During the Kosovo campaign this past spring, the US Defense Department was more than willing to supply the public with U-2 spy aircraft and satellite images documenting Yugoslav government atrocities, but this is not standard procedure.
"There is a highly selective process of releasing pictures in the Pentagon," says Osnos. She points to the lack of publicly available U-2 images when an estimated 7,000 Muslim men were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica.
When Rwandan refugees went missing in the jungles of the former Zaire in 1996, after their camps had been emptied overnight by fighting, the Clinton administration used aircraft images to convince the media the refugees had returned home. Later it was revealed that hundreds of thousands had in fact remained behind.
Commercial satellites could thus be a useful tool for the public to confirm government accounts. But how to track refugees or human rights abuses if one cannot see individuals?
Einar Bjorgø, with the Nansen Remote Sensing Center in Norway, spent three years on a pioneer PhD project researching how satellite imagery could be of value to humanitarian organizations.
"You will probably not see individual refugees, but you can see the effects of them," he explains; "You can see their tents, the roads, the campfires - the impact on the ground."
Cost a factor
One major drawback for humanitarian groups using satellite images is cost. Prices vary, but a minimum order for the best 1-meter resolution images from the new Ikonos is $2,000. To reliably establish changes on the ground, several images of the same spot acquired over time would be needed.
While Osnos says such fees would be more than even a large organization like Human Rights Watch could normally afford, the money could be raised, for example, "if we were trying to get the [United Nations] War Crimes Tribunal ... to create a case against another Pinochet."
Prices are expected to drop with the planned launch of more commercial satellites in coming years. More satellites could also enable users to have images updated on a daily basis.
Moreover, the possibility of commercially available satellite images could make governments less selective in releasing shots from military spy satellites. "Satellite imagery will give NGO's more leverage," Baker says. "Human rights groups will ... be able to force the government to show them because [the government] knows they can do it themselves if they have to."
Brown adds, "When the Internet just came up it was only used by nerds. Here we are 20 years later and everyone has got a Web site. [Commercial imagery] is going to take time to evolve."