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Inter Press Service

Keep Watch from Space

The use of satellite images earlier this year to document human rights violations in Darfur has strengthened interest in wider use of satellites for humanitarian purposes.

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME - The project in Darfur, Sudan, by Google Earth, a virtual programme that maps the earth by superimposition of images obtained from satellite imagery, has brought a new dimension to public monitoring of abuses.

Satellites first showed their potential as human rights watchdogs when the U.S. State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) started using images from free channels in 2004 to reveal the unfolding violence in Darfur. Before then, such images could only be tracked by military satellites.0904 04

But now such tracking has become open to the public. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum teamed up with Google's mapping service in April to track violence in the region. The initiative called 'Crisis in Darfur' lets Internet users look at more than 1,600 destroyed villages and towns in northeast Africa, pictured before and after attacks, and hear testimonies collected by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other groups along the Chad border.

According to Google, the programme counts more than 200 million users.

Experts estimate that more than 200,000 people have been killed in this Sudanese region, and a reported 2.5 million displaced since the conflict started in 2003. Late July the UN Security Council passed a resolution establishing the world's largest peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

During the first phase of the conflict reports by relief agencies met denial by the government, and public scepticism. But now satellite images showing the true picture with dates leave no room for doubt.

The images have amplified the highlight on Darfur, though they may not help prevent attacks since the information is not presented in real time.

To track attacks as they happen, Amnesty International has launched its own web-based service in June called 'Eyes on Darfur', which uses satellite imagery to monitor 13 villages in Darfur and eastern Chad considered at risk. Users can zoom in on pictures of the villages and read accounts from residents who explain why they are at risk.

"Watching these sites in real time will enable us to document atrocities as they occur," said Ariela Blätter, director of Amnesty International's Crisis Prevention and Response Centre.

"Thanks to satellites," she says on the website, "human rights groups can now raise the alarm and mobilise millions of people even before governments admit that something worrying is occurring." Through this technology human rights organisations can extend their traditional role of monitoring violations to an unprecedented level, says Blätter.

After Darfur, the satellite eye is now monitoring Burma, following reports of attacks on civilians in the eastern part of the country. And Human Rights Watch has been able to show attacks on civilians in the Iraq war, and to demonstrate illegal demolition of Palestinian houses in the Gaza strip.

"This kind of technology helps us monitor crisis areas where events are often unpredictable," Alessandro Guarino at the Rome-based NGO Intersos told IPS. The NGO has been working in Sudan since 2004.

The Intersos satellite-based project focuses on displaced people rather than on human rights issues. It has developed a WebGis platform integrating the Geographic Information System (GIS) which looks at precise geographical data with the Internet to monitor the path of displaced persons to refugee camps.

Guarino said that the WebGis (GIS on Internet) interactive system "supplies the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Sudan, the local authorities and NGOs with detailed information on the condition of 550 villages in southwestern Darfur and their habitants, updated in real time." The ultimate aim is refugees' gradual return home.

The information shows whether the villages are inhabited or destroyed, the availability of water, health points, the presence of relief personnel, schools, and the state of the fields.

Local organisations' access to online data is facilitated by the use of open source software.

The supportive role of satellite technology is emerging in a variety of successful projects focusing on war-affected populations. "Through the technical assistance of the European Space Agency (ESA), we also organise a two-hour weekly telemedicine consultation session between medical staff of the main hospital in Rome, the Policlinico Umberto I, and colleagues of the Children Welfare Teaching Hospital of Baghdad," Guarino told IPS.

This assistance helps in diagnosis and treatment in Iraqi hospitals deprived of diagnostic equipment. A similar e-health satellite bridge is being considered between the Regional Oncological Centre at the Fontem Hospital in Cameroon, and some Italian centres.

"Use of the bi-directional satellite communication system would allow diagnosis and treatment at a distance, particularly those related to cervical cancer, representing 70 percent of malignant gynaecological cases leading to death from cancer in Cameroon," Cesare Borin, Africa projects coordinator for Act Now Alliance, an international alliance of NGOs told IPS.

© 2007 Inter Press Service

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