We all know that Sudan is not an ideal tourist locale right now. It’s not even a local’s locale. But its desperate need for change is one that attracts help from those with fame and money. Now George Clooney is taking that aid to another level with a ground-breaking tech project that may just make “anti-genocide paparazzi” the new buzz phrase of the year.
Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian aid group founded by film stars George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, human rights lawyer David Pressman, and film executive Jerry Weintraub, is currently funding the Satellite Sentinel Project, a surveillance initiative launched within this past week.
According to a press release from the site, private satellites will “capture possible threats to civilians, observe the movement of displaced people, detect bombed and razed villages, or note other evidence of pending mass violence.” Images will be combined with policy analysis and field reports from the Enough Project and research to contextualize the imagery from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
Typically, the wait time for images is a week; this project wants to reduce that to less than 36 hours. Findings will then be immediately made public and published online by the U.N. Operational Satellite Applications Program and Google on the project’s website, which went live on December 29. If enough evidence of war crimes exists, then appeals for action will be led by the Enough Project.
“We’re like the Magnificent Seven,” said Nathaniel Raymond of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, “but we’re all nerds. And George Clooney is the man in black.”
The satellite surveillance is reaching a critical point in its watch over the border between north and south Sudan: On January 9, the oil-rich southern region will vote on a secession referendum, and the results could bring on civil war. According to the AP, “the vote is the result of a 2005 peace deal that ended a 21-year conflict that claimed the lives of two million people and left twice as many displaced.”
“We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes know that we’re watching, the world is watching,” Clooney said in a statement on the project’s website. “War criminals thrive in the dark. It’s a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight. We want to cast a spotlight– literally– on the hotspots along the border to record any actions that might escalate the chances of conflict. We hope that if many eyes are on the potential spoilers, we can all help to detect, deter and interdict actions that could lead to a return to deadly violence.”
The hope is that the Satellite Sentinel Project will not only give a better idea of war crimes in Sudan, but will also issue out early warnings that can then reduce the risk of violence and “stop a war before it starts.” It’s a very passionate mission for Clooney, a longtime advocate for the people of southern Sudan, who has visited the country repeatedly since 2006 and emerged as one of the most advocative and credible voices for its need for humanitarian change.
In 2007, he was featured in Don Cheadle’s documentary Darfur Now. His seven-day visit to the tense border between north and south Sudan with Ann Curry last October for a Dateline special that aired in December stirred up a lot of concern in him for what could follow the referendum vote, and he started actively exploring a way to “work out some sort of a deal to spin a a satellite” above and let the world watch what happens. He may not be able to stop it, but at least he can document it. That same month, he visited D.C. to speak out for Sudan at a Council on Foreign Relations press conference.
“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get,” Clooney told Time magazine when he unveiled the project on December 28. “If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”
The idea for this degree of pre-emptive surveillance is not really Clooney’s alone. Collecting and analyzing satellite imagery is actually the mission of the U.N.’s Operational Satellite Program. What makes this project different, reports Fast Company, is that it’s funded privately by Clooney and others:
“That means there is more freedom to snap away in whatever geographical areas and on whatever basis the group wants, as opposed to the U.N., which has certain rules and guidelines to work within. Specifically, Clooney will monitor the movement of troops, whereas [the U.N.'s] primary– and most flexible– prerogative is the monitoring of natural disasters, not man-made ones.”
The project isn’t coined as revolutionary, but it is definitely setting sail as ground-breaking. “Never before has a project used technology on this level to try to prevent violence and human rights abuses,” Raymond said.
“This project is leveraging Google map makers open source platform to wage peace,” says Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project. “Unlike previous satellite imagery gathering projects which were after-the-fact documentation exercises, this project aims to stop a war before it starts.”
“It is Google Earth on lots of steroids,” U.N. imagery analyst Lars Bromley told Time.
“The new year brings good news for Sudan,” Hutson told GlobalPost. “This is Clooney’s brainchild. He engaged the ingenuity and resources of peacemakers and tech titans to make it happen.”
And, depending on its success above Sudan, the project may not stop there. Clooney envisions Sentinel expanding to other global hot spots in need of surveillance: “This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing, but you can’t say you did not know.”
“We were late to Rwanda. We were late to the Congo. We were late to Darfur,” said Clooney. “There is no time to wait.”
Photo courtesy of csztova via Flickr