The Art of Facts

A LEGAL BLOG about Fact-finding and Armed ConflicTS

Remote Sensing Technology: The Ultimate Fact-Finding Tool in Armed Conflict?

I should start with a disclaimer; I am neither a geek nor an expert. Not even remotely one. And I have to quickly come to my senses each time I think I have improved my IT skills. That I was able to create this blog doesn’t change a thing! So I address today’s topic with extreme caution and from a different angle: the fact that technology found its way into human rights monitoring and that it is now a given that it plays an important role in one’s fact-finding toolbox. However like with any new technological development, the potential often creates high expectations. Some may be confirmed in practice. For instance, Remote Sensing Technology (RST) can provide critical information to prove a war crime was committed. But it might not be the ultimate tool for fact-finders, analysis, diversity of sources and corroboration are!

Now some definitions could be useful at this point. Remote Sensing is ‘the technique of obtaining information about objects through the analysis of data collected by special instruments that are not in physical contact with the objects of investigation’ (see here). In plain terms, it is about gathering data on an object or an area from a long distance through the use of instruments such as photographic camera and radar, the most common remote sensors carrier being a satellite.

Beyond its traditional core functions in peacetime, RST has various applications in the context of an armed conflict such as monitoring mass displacements of persons. But it also looks like the best way to overcome some of the specific challenges fact-finders encounter when collecting information in times of war, not least that of getting access to the ‘crime scene’ or even to the country where the war is taking place. It then didn’t take long to turn this potential into actual monitoring technic. Human Rights Watch was one of the first human rights NGOs to use satellite imagery to document home demolitions, in the Gaza Strip. Another initiative, more publicized, is the use of satellites to monitor destruction of villages in Darfur by the Satellite Sentinel Project.

From South Ossetia in 2008 to document Georgian villages torched after the war to Pakistan to determine the exact location of drone strikes, and Syria to corroborate the location of detention facilities where torture was committed or to show damage caused by bombardments, satellite imagery is being increasingly used and in many different ways. The Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) are the main players when it comes to providing technical support to human rights NGOs to collect and analyze RST data.

Of course RST in general and satellite imagery in particular can only serve specific purposes in fact-finding work about human rights and IHL violations. According to Lars Bromley (quoted in a great piece by Jenara Nerenberg), Principal Analyst and Research Advisor at UNOSAT who also led the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, satellites are being used to monitor violations in six core areas: to identify shell craters; burned houses; large military equipment; damaged agricultural fields; mass graves; and expanding cemeteries (ad hoc burials and graveyards). Radars may also complement satellite imagery, to detect disturbed soil for example in the case of allegations of mass graves.

Depending on the type of facts one tries to establish, RST can therefore be relevant in many different ways: from providing data on a particular factual element of a given incident, such as location or presence of military equipment, to establishing the effects of a certain act, such as the actual destruction of buildings as well as its scale. But it also means it is primarily used to document certain types of IHL violations, mainly those related to conduct of hostilities.

Technically RST also provides a way to address one of fact-finding’s main weaknesses: that it is mostly conducted ex-post facto, after the incidents or the violation occurred. Satellite imagery offers two alternative perspectives: it allows to travel in time to show the before and after effects of an incident, for example using GPS coordinates of the location of an attack to order satellite imagery at two different dates, before and after the attack, to compare. This includes collecting satellite imagery of locations of large scale abuses that have taken place in the 70’s or 80’s. The development of satellite technology can also, although to a lesser extent, provide information in real time when a satellite can be tasked to collect data on an ongoing attack.

This being said, let’s not get carried away. While RST proves very useful, it comes with a great deal of challenges. The most obvious one is the cost; not all NGOs can afford commissioning satellite imagery. The availability of images for a particular location at a given date and time can also be limited by a series of reasons. Weather conditions or natural environment may ruin visibility; clouds are satellite’s worst enemy! And in countries like DRC, where RST could be very valuable with extremely remote areas to monitor, clouds are the rule. In addition it is not like satellites are earth-orbiting constantly scanning all potential areas where abuses may be committed. When an NGO requests images, they might just not be available. In the case of the conflict in Georgia in 2008, the AAAS, commissioned by Amnesty International, noted that ‘satellites operated by major commercial vendors were fully booked, preventing the tasking of a new image for the duration of this conflict’. It had to rely upon images requested by other entities. Finally, the value of satellite imagery in providing factual information highly depends on the resolution of the image, defined as the size of the smallest object that can be depicted. While images available to NGOs from commercial satellites have now a resolution of between 50 cm to 1 m (that qualifies as ‘high-resolution’), images with a resolution of 2 cm are only provided by military governmental satellites, and therefore classified and not available to the public. Due to this limitation, experts and analysts involved in supporting human rights monitoring only refer to ‘structures’ when looking at satellite images.

This raises a more fundamental question: how to make sense of RST data in the broader process of establishing facts? Or in other words, when looking at a satellite image, Can you spot the human-rights abuses here? First, raw RST data, such as satellite imagery, captured and recorded by remote sensors, must be analyzed either by visual interpretation or by sophisticated computer processing. Data is not information. Beyond this technical analysis, RST imagery must be supplemented by interviews and field research to be put into context and be interpreted in relation to the particular incident being investigated. RST can then provide a lead, suggest an IHL violation or can complement existing reports from other sources.

This is a snapshot of RST’s opportunities for now, but who knows what it will do in 2 decades time?

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