Amnesty Launches 'Eyes on Darfur' Site

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Atrocities in western Sudan as well as injustices in Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Burma have prompted American scientists to assist human rights organizations by devising tracking techniques using satellite imagery. The effort was made possible by benevolent donors and geospatial firms offering cutting-edge services at discounted rates.

Amnesty International yesterday launched its "Eyes on Darfur" Web site, a pioneering online effort to monitor settlements of people threatened with coercive displacement and brutality. The site is a collaboration between Amnesty and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest scientific society.

The use of satellite cameras to capture developments on the ground allows computer users around the world to keep a virtual eye on vulnerable populations in faraway, otherwise inaccessible places. For example, Malam El Hosh, a settlement nestled in the arid terrain of Darfur in western Sudan, will be monitored to detect evidence of violent changes. A nearby water well, a large resource that may attract militias bent on uprooting settled communities, is one reason that site was chosen to be monitored.

Lars Bromley, project director for the AAAS, explained that the commercially available photos can show objects or spaces as small as two feet across -- sufficient to reveal the destruction of small huts or other makeshift structures.

The initiative is an example of how science and technology can be applied to expose human rights violations, said Mona Younis, director of the Science and Human Rights Program at the AAAS. The organization has helped document atrocities from Guatemala to Kosovo over the past 30 years, she added.

Last year, the imaging program, in collaboration with Amnesty International in London and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a civic society watchdog, produced satellite images showing strong evidence that the government of Zimbabwe had destroyed a settlement west of the capital, Harare. The advanced imagery technology also showed that thousands of residents had been relocated, apparently as part of a concerted campaign targeting political opponents.

In addition to the assessment of human rights violations in Zimbabwe and Darfur, the AAAS program has been used to survey Lebanon and is slated to focus on Burma.

The AAAS has partnered with Amnesty International U.S.A., the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, and Equitas, an international center for human rights education.

According to Bromley, the AAAS program will explore even more-advanced imagery tools, adding to the sophisticated analysis technology already in use, to boost its human rights monitoring capacity. That may include sensors that could pick up on fires in conflict zones or light monitors that could detect patterns of habitation.

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