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Clooney's satellite project shows troops near Sudan's border

George Clooney's satellite project shows troops and arms along the volatile Abyei border area.

The report documents checkpoints reported by the United Nations north of Abyei Town on the road to Diffra in the oil-producing northern part of Abyei's territory. The checkpoints are in the same region where busloads of southerners returning home from the North charge they have been ambushed and held. Returnees have reported many cases of rape.

These images demonstrate the satellite project's ability to monitor the movements and activity of armed troops. The satellite project is watching all actors in Sudan and both sides of the border.

“The Satellite Sentinel Project aims to shine a light on potential conflict areas to deter the resumption of civil war and ensure accountability in Sudan,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project and of the Satellite Sentinel Project.

“We are focusing on the areas along the border where the most likely conflicts may occur. The idea is to monitor these hotspots and deter human rights crimes before they happen," said Prendergast. "The imagery we captured does not reveal any violations of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by either side so far. Yet in the absence of negotiated post-referendum arrangements, and given the unresolved status of Abyei, continued vigilance is required.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, former chief of infantry for the U.S. Army, also helped to analyse the imagery and said the project "has broken new ground and is providing not just a new tool, but a new toolbox for promoting peace by safeguarding civilians.”

DigitalGlobe Vice President Stephen Wood told GlobalPost that the company has imaged nearly 290,000 square miles of Sudan in the last 30 days.

"This is groundbreaking. We have shown imagery of tsunamis and right now the Australian floods. But this is the first time that we have been proactive instead of reactive," said Wood. "This project is actively monitoring the situation in Sudan in this critical period to see what is on the ground. We can see checkpoints and barriers and tents in great detail. By making this knowledge public, this could help to defuse the situation. What greater transparency could there be?" 

The Satellite Sentinel Project is the first sustained, public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hotspots and threats to security along a border.

Clooney conceived of the innovative project on Oct. 4, 2010, while on a fact-finding mission to South Sudan with Prendergast. The satellite project is funded primarily by Not On Our Watch, an anti-genocide group that includes Clooney and other Hollywood figures including Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman and Jerry Weintraub.

“Traditionally, the human rights community has documented abuses that have already occurred,” said Charlie Clements, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “Satellite Sentinel Project represents a new opportunity for policy makers and the public to have access to the same types of information that could save lives if widely shared and acted upon.”

The Satellite Sentinel Project combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker to deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan. The project provides an early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns.

This project is the result of a collaboration between Not On Our Watch, the Enough Project, Google, the United Nations UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, DigitalGlobe and Trellon.

The new initiative could help find solutions in other international security troublespots, according to Francesco Pisano, manager of the United Nations satellite imaging organization, UNOSAT.

“This is a demonstration that commercial satellites have reached a level of operational reliability and technical excellence that holds promises for the future of impartial and internationally monitored human security and human rights protection," said Pisano. "I am impressed with the level of collaboration we have with DigitalGlobe over Sudan. We are looking forward to building on this experience and we’ll work to replicate this success in future.”