BOSTON — George Clooney has initiated a cutting-edge human rights project that combines satellite photographs, field reports and Google technology to help prevent the resumption of a deadly civil war in Sudan.
To launch Wednesday, the Satellite Sentinel Project analyzes satellite images and on-the-ground reporting to monitor the tense border between North and South Sudan.
Oil-rich southern Sudan will vote on Jan. 9 to determine whether or not to become independent from the rest of Sudan. Experts warn that Sudan could plunge back into civil war if the northern-based government of President Omar al-Bashir refuses to accept the South’s independence. The tensions surrounding the election could spark the world’s next genocide, according to human rights activists.
Clooney said the satellite images will expose any major preparations for war in Sudan such as troop movements and shipments of heavy weapons and tanks.
“We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes know that we’re watching, the world is watching,” said Clooney. “War criminals thrive in the dark. It’s a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight.”
Clooney has emerged as one of the most credible voices on Sudan, after visiting the troubled country several times and speaking out on the need for peace there.
The actor came up with the idea of satellite surveillance when he visited the tense border area in October. Then he pulled together the unprecedented collaboration and finance needed to make it a reality.
Clooney persuaded cooperation between Not On Our Watch, which is a Hollywood human rights group, and the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide group. He also orchestrated the involvement of UNOSAT (the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Program), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Google and Trellon, which is an internet strategy and development firm. Together, all the groups for a coalition that will provide an early warning system to focus world attention and generate rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns.
The Sudan project works like this: Commercial satellites passing over the border between North and South Sudan will transmit detailed images of activities in the area. The satellite photographs will show possible threats to civilians, such as the massing of soldiers and the deliveries of weapons. The satellite photographs will also record any attacks on refugees and displaced people and will provide evidence of any violence such as bombed and razed villages.
UNOSAT will collect and analyze the images and collaborate with Google and Trellon to make the images and reports easily accessible to the public on the internet on www.satsentinel.org.
The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will collect on-the-ground reports from aid groups in Sudan that will corroborate what is shown in the photographs. The Enough Project will contribute field reports, provide policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch, will publicize the findings and will pressure policymakers to act.
Not On Our Watch has provided the $750,000 needed for the six-month project. Not On Our Watch was started by Hollywood actor Don Cheadle, star of "Hotel Rwanda," to prevent any other genocide. Not On Our Watch members include Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman and Jerry Weintraub.
The Satellite Sentinel Project marks the first sustained, public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hotspots and threats to security along a border, in near real-time (within 24 to 36 hours). It is the first time satellite and internet technology have been used to try to prevent humanitarian disasters and human rights crimes before they occur, according John Prendergast, Enough Project co-founder.
"Deterrence is our objective," said Prendergast. "We want to contribute to the prevention of war between North and South Sudan. If war does ignite, we want to hold accountable those responsible, and hopefully deter human rights crimes that would be committed in the context of war."
The United States has the satellite technology to monitor potential trouble spots, but those images are not made public. The secrecy allows U.S. officials to make policy decisions without taking into consideration a public outcry. By making the images public immediately, Clooney and his team hope that the U.S. and other governments will be pressed to take actions should civil war in Sudan appear imminent, according to those close to the project.
"The new year brings good news for Sudan," Enough Project's director of communications Jonathan Hutson told GlobalPost. "This is Clooney's brainchild. He engaged the ingenuity and resources of peacemakers and tech titans to make it happen. The Not On Our Watch founders used their big names and their big money to seed a visionary project that will transform the way peace is waged, from now on."
Nathaniel Raymond of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative is equally excited about the Satellite Sentinel Project.
“Never before has a project used technology on this level to try to prevent violence and human rights abuses. George Clooney and Not On Our Watch have put forward the money to make it possible,” said Raymond, who will verify on-the-ground reports that will give the context of the satellite photographs.
“For me, this is the culmination of many years of work,” said Raymond, a human rights investigator with a decade of experience in documentation of human rights violations. “Too often we in human rights work only play catch-up to find out how an atrocity happened. Here we are using documentation to try to prevent something from happening. If something happens at night, the policy makers can see it the next morning, not days or even weeks later.”
Raymond said he and others are excited about working together because they all see it as a ground-breaking project.
“This team is amazing,” said Raymond. “We are working with the leaders in many different fields to encourage peace in Sudan. We’re like the Magnificent Seven, but we’re all nerds. And George Clooney is the man in black.”