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Drones and Satellites for Good - How Satellite Imagery Can Protect Human Rights

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Written by Marius, 06-08-2015

When it comes to human rights violations, it is often the weakest members of our society who are hardest hit. This is especially true for those who have no one representing their rights on their side. Using the latest technology, satellites can now be used to detect crimes. For our RESET special 'Drones and Satellites for Good', we show how two projects are working towards protecting human rights by using satellites images.

The question is simple and logical but nonetheless surprising: if we constantly have up to 1000 satellites orbiting the earth, how can it be possible that human rights violations initially go unnoticed? The possible poor quality of the images is one explanation. To be more exact, the sticking point is the question of who evaluates this information. The UN's Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) is taking a closer look for us. It uses satellite information to track and make note of humanitarian disasters, violence and human rights violations in a timely manner.

The Philippines in the year 2013: conflict is going on between the separatists of the Moro National Liberation Front and government forces. Already 131,000 people have been forced to flee, 10,000 houses have been destroyed and at least 130 people have lost their lives. Aid organisations no longer dare to act on site and the information on the situation is contradictory. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) finally used satellite images to identify the extent of damage to buildings from which the intensity of the conflict could be deduced.

Human rights also means having a fundamental guarantee of safety. Satellites can help in cases where human rights are at risk. They can assist aid organisations in gathering information about regions that are no longer safe to enter without the police or army. Last but not least, there are also situations in which the army, as in the Philippines in 2013, is not entirely impartial. In addition to use in dangerous war zones, the analysis of satellite data has also proven to be of use in complex civil war situations.

Sudan is one such case whereby the analysis of satellite data from 2011 saved lives, both indirectly and directly. This was made possible by the Satellite Sentinel Project which analyses satellite images derived from the border between Sudan and South Sudan. A partnership between John Prendergast (co-founder of the Enough Project) and the Project Not On Our Watch, the Satellite Sentinel Project was also co-founded by actor George Clooney, whose popularity surely played no small role in raising funds. However, Clooney is in this case more than just a celebrity face. He has travelled incognito several times to the region and pointed out shocking photos to the public about the extent of the crisis. He was even arrested at a later stage for taking part in a demonstration in front of the Sudanese Embassy against the (North) Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir in Washington DC.

So What's the Point of all This Observation?

First and foremost, satellite data can be used as evidence during the trials of war crimes. On the other hand the images are often so accurate that massacres or the existence of mass graves are detectable. In some cases, distant observers can play pivotal roles that affect the outcome of conflict. For example, in September 2011, when an employee of the Satellite Sentinel Project spotted thousands of soldiers and helicopters at Kurmuk, they were able to warn residents in that location and save numerous people.

In the video below, John Prendergast explains how he and George Clooney got involved with this project and how they go about their work with satellite imagery:


From the bottom of the ocean to the outer reaches of the galaxy – the possibilities offered by drones and satellites are practically unlimited. Unmanned aerial vehicles are no longer only used in war zones. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, they are also valuable aids in the fight against pollution and social injustice. They can expose polluters and even locate people buried under rubble. In our RESET Special 'Drones and Satellites for Good', we will introduce projects that use satellites and drones towards sustainable development.