Conflict & Justice

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


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BOSTON — The Sudan army has deployed troops, light armor and artillery along the volatile Abyei border area between North and South Sudan, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded by George Clooney.

An estimated 55,000 Sudan army troops have been deployed along the disputed border areas, according to the Small Arms Survey, an organization based in Switzerland that monitors the situation in Sudan. The satellite images combined with the Satellite Sentinel Projects' field reports corroborate that army troops are in three areas near the border, but it is not known when they were deployed.

Satellite images of the disputed border area show signs of hundreds of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers spread across the disputed border area of South Kordofan.

The Sudan army troops do not appear prepared to attack South Sudan, according to the  first report by the satellite project.

Because there are no signs of an imminent attack, there is an opportunity to negotiate a resolution to the outstanding issues between the North and South that, if left unresolved, could trigger renewed conflict in Sudan.

These first images and analysis have deepened our understanding of the evolving situation following Southern Sudan’s historic vote on independence," said Clooney who started the satellite project with the anti-genocide group, Enough Project.

"Although the SAF in South Kordofan apparently remains a force largely in hiding, we showed they are field-deployed, and they are controlling major roads by running checkpoints," said Clooney, who visited the tense border area earlier this month.

"Though they are not showing signs of advancing, we confirmed that they’re equipped with helicopter transport, artillery, armored personnel carriers and trucks," said the Hollywood actor who has campaigned for peace in Sudan for several years. "Our first report represents the best recent information on the military situation in Sudan publicly available.”

The situation in Sudan is particularly tense right now because the South voted earlier this month to become independent from the North, according to preliminary results. Early results show than more than 90 percent voted to separate from Sudan but official results are not expected until February.

There are fears the North, ruled by President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, will oppose independence or will try to seize territory in the border area because it has rich oilfields. That is why the evidence of such a large army presence along the border area is significant.

Sudan was locked in a civil war between North and South for 20 years, until a peace agreement was reached in 2005.

Because the border area is so tense, Clooney worked with Enough Project to pull together experts to take and analyse satellite images along the border area.

The satellite project's findings of substantial arms and troops was confirmed by retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James "Spider" Marks.

"These satellite images show clear military capabilities," Marks told GlobalPost. "The artillery and tracks in the sand show sizable pieces of equipment. I see lots of tents that have the capability to house anything from ammunition to troops or something else."

Marks, who volunteered his expertise to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, said he was impressed by the findings.

"This is an extremely powerful initiative. Now the Sudan army know we are watching and if they sneeze, we'll know it, said Marks. "The public knowledge of this security information may galvanize the United Nations. It may encourage negotiations. It may encourage the U.N. to lay out a firm stand with the Sudanese army where the U.N. establishes a presence that encourages the Sudanese army to back off." 

The satellite images show evidence of troops deployed at company level formation along the border area. The Small Arms Survey reports that there are 55,000 SAF troops in total in South Kordofan along the border — half the strength of Sudan’s standing regular army — spread out over some 100 garrisons.

The satellite imagery collected to date by the sentinel project provides photographic corroboration of company-size deployments, light armor, mobile artillery, and other offensive military equipment, as well as helicopter transport.

The imagery analysis by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative presents fresh and unprecedented high-resolution photos of a potential conflict zone captured by DigitalGlobe, a leading commercial satellite firm, which is providing imagery and additional analysis.

The images, combined with the Enough Project’s field reports, show what’s happening in Sudan's flashpoint border areas, where the combination of large numbers of security forces and high levels of tension could cause localized incidents to escalate, drawing both sides into a wider conflict.

The report shows that the Sudan army deployments near Muglad, Kadugli, Kharassana and other areas appear to be deployed in camps of 75 to 225 troops, equipped with helicopter transport, light armor and artillery.

The Satellite Project emphasizes that these troops do not appear to be preparing to move in the near future. The project has documented roadwork near known and suspected military bases, but the images do not show major movement of fuel trucks, supply convoys and troop transports that suggest imminent forward operations.

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.”