Eyes in the sky: satellites and war

How geospatial technology is exposing atrocities and breaches of international humanitarian law in war zones

Renata Sivacolundhu

International relations, National security, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

24 December 2015

Technology can expose human rights violations in conflict areas, but associated policy must be carefully thought through, Renata Sivacolundhu writes.

In 1995, classified satellite imagery revealing evidence of mass killings of civilians in Srebrenica was tabled in the United Nations Security Council by the then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright. It had the desired impact. The imagery changed the narrative of the conflict and Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic were called to appear before an international tribunal for egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

More recently, satellite images confirmed worst fears that Syria’s Temple of Bel had been destroyed in a flagrant violation of the laws of armed conflict regarding the protection of cultural property. Images from hotspots all around the globe have been used by advocates to focus the world’s attention on major human rights violations, from Nigeria to North Korea. The International Committee of the Red Cross, UN agencies and relief organisations, see such new technologies as presenting opportunities for improving humanitarian action, by mapping needs and better analysing the environment in which they work.

But how effective can geospatial technology be in exposing and prosecuting breaches of international humanitarian law? What policy guidance is required to ensure this technology is being applied in conformity with humanitarian principles?  And could this technology influence national and regional policy vis a vis the Responsibility to Protect?

International humanitarian law (IHL) says that in times of war, certain rules must apply to limit suffering and to spare those outside the conflict. The fundamental principle of distinction requires that means and methods of warfare must distinguish between fighters and civilians, so that the latter can be spared. It outlaws the use of human shields, hiding weapons in civilian locations or deploying weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and fighters. The other key IHL principles of humanity and proportionality aim to limit the effects of war on civilians and civilian objects and require that any likely damage to these must be carefully assessed in proportion to the likely military advantage.

Geospatial technology has been used to provide investigators and observers with compelling evidence of violations of these principles of IHL. It offers timely images from conflicts in progress, in remote areas where humanitarian access may be denied or prohibitively difficult and without the complication of requesting permission to enter from belligerent states. In contrast to eye-witness accounts, imagery may be less susceptible to politicisation and attacks on credibility. However, understanding the limitations of this technology and the need for cautious interpretation is critical.

Satellite imagery doesn’t tell the whole story; taken from above, images can miss damage to the sides of buildings from tanks and artillery. Attribution of responsibility for attacks can be difficult if the image resolution is poor or the type of weaponry deployed by both sides is similar. While satellite imagery is well suited to capture obvious signs of potential IHL violations such as destruction of civilian infrastructure, it is less able to highlight tactics such as the deliberate location of weapons in civilian buildings and the use of human shields. In asymmetrical conflicts where such tactics are sometimes used, imagery may only be able to capture one side of the story.

Satellite imagery alone cannot be expected to nuance military necessity and proportionality. In Sri Lanka in 2009, satellite imagery identified mortar shell craters in the No Fire Zones close to civilians that could be traced back to government forces. Yet analysis indicated that the opposing forces (the LTTE) had constructed defensive shelters in the middle of civilian populations in these areas, suggesting they were using civilians as human shields.

Whether the government was violating the laws of war by targeting areas where civilians were located or whether their actions were justified in terms of the military necessity of defeating an enemy that deliberately hides amongst the population requires further investigation.

Despite its limitations, satellite imagery can be a significant catalyst for humanitarian and policy response. In northern Nigeria, satellite imagery was used by human rights groups to draw attention to attacks on villages by Boko Haram. In such instances, images alone cannot provide definitive accounts and categorically attribute blame, but they provide strong impetus for further independent investigation. To successfully prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes, painstaking investigative work is needed to corroborate witness testimony on the ground and demonstrate causality and attribution.

Geospatial data could, if used proactively, provide a new level of support for the implementation of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) interventions in the earlier stages of risk and perpetration. R2P places a positive obligation on States to intervene, with actions up to and including armed force, where there is reasonable evidence of risk that a State is either perpetrating or failing to protect their citizens from certain types of mass atrocity crimes.

Theoretically, in the earliest stages of risk or perpetration – identified with the aid of satellite imagery among other methods – states could intervene with preventative or mitigating actions such as capacity building, certain types of humanitarian assistance, economic sanctions or other actions calculated to decrease risk to vulnerable populations. Such measures could mitigate the risk of a situation deteriorating to the point where military action is the only solution contemplated.

If this technology is to continue to be used for humanitarian purposes or to assist in prosecutions of IHL violations, then its use should be underpinned by humanitarian principles – namely humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. While the collection process is unlikely to be neutral or independent from government or commercial interests, the international community must ensure the technology is available where it is needed most, not only for high-profile conflicts in the eye of the media. It is important to ensure that the information collected is acted upon in a way that is consistent with these principles, alleviating suffering wherever it is uncovered, with priority given to the most urgent cases. Regulations or guidelines in this regard should be discussed with all actors who have a stake and with the best interests of victims in mind.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

Leave your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Press Ctrl+C to copy