Clooney warns of new violence in Sudan


George Clooney in South Sudan in October 2010.


Tim Freccia

BOSTON — George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project warned of escalating violence in Sudan’s Abyei region, along the volatile border between North and South Sudan.

The satellite photos show evidence of the intentional burning of the strategic border villages Maker Abior and Todach.

The satellite project, in the report "Flashpoint: Abyei", also documented a significant increase in military activity by what appears to be the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which operate in South Kordofan state, as well as an apparent buildup of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Abyei. The increased militarization of this area, including evidence of battle tanks and other heavy equipment, has increased tensions between the two sides.

“We have images nearly in real time of the deliberate destruction of a village in Abyei. We have warned for months that the match that could ignite the resumption of war between North and South Sudan resides in Abyei. It is critical that diplomatic efforts be intensified to prevent such an outcome,” said George Clooney, who conceived of the Satellite Sentinel Project during an October trip to Southern Sudan with Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast.

Clooney was so alarmed about the new findings that he took time to issue the statement from Oxford, Ohio, where he is directing and acting in the film "The Ides of March." The film is a political thriller based on the play Farragut North.

Given the new findings in Sudan, Clooney said it is urgent that Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party immediately assume responsibility for preventing armed militias, which it has previously controlled, from instigating any further violence. He also urged the United States and the international community to swiftly impose consequences for all parties that undertake offensive military actions, commit human rights abuses, and put peace efforts at risk.

The satellite images, captured by DigitalGlobe, confirm that attacks took place on multiple villages in the Abyei border region, the first of which began Feb. 27.

Sources on the ground said the fighting might have begun between armed Misseriya militia and southern police. In addition, elements of the Popular Defense Force militias, historically supported by the Khartoum government's forces, participated in the attacks.

The village of Maker Abior was previously hit by fighting just prior to the South Sudan referendum that took place in early January. The fighting, as well as rumors of militia movement toward Abyei Town, has triggered the flight of much of the civilian population southward toward Agok, displacing tens of thousands, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The satellite project also documented increases in military capacity by both the North's Sudan Armed Forces and the South's Sudan People's Liberation Army in areas around Abyei, including heavy equipment transport and tanks at a known Sudan army outpost in Kharassana and a new suspected Sudan army position near Heglig. The southern SPLA army is also suspected of rapidly building up its encampments in Unity State during the past month.

“The intentional destruction of Maker Abior just prior to the resumption of high-level negotiations between North and South demands an unambiguous response from the United States,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, the anti-genocide group that has worked closely with Clooney to encourage peace in Sudan.

“Anyone found responsible for this dramatic deterioration should be held accountable and subject to swift consequences," Prendergast said. "The Obama administration should suspend implementation of any incentives package linked to the North-South effort, in particular removal of Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Instead, the United States should intensify its peace efforts, and create a task force charged with developing a robust set of consequences for any Sudanese party that risks derailing progress toward peace.”

A dramatic worsening of conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and in recent weeks escalating violence in flashpoint regions on the border between North and South Sudan, including Abyei, has been documented by the Enough Project. “Given a consistent pattern of escalating violence against civilians, the United States and its international partners should be prepared to uphold the international Responsibility to Protect doctrine as they press forward for peace throughout Sudan,” according to John Bradshaw, Enough Project executive director.

By taking detailed aerial photos of the Sudan border area and warning of a buildup of armed forces, the pioneering Satellite Sentinel Project “has done what it was created to do: detect threats to civilians in near real time,” said Charlie Clements, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Now it is up to the international community to quickly use this evidence to turn detection into deterrence.”

“In the wake of historic events across North Africa and the Middle East, there has been universal condemnation of governments that employ mass violence against their own populations,” Prendergast said. “The bold and swift response of the Obama administration and U.N. Security Council to the crisis in Libya, which in a matter of days employed a strong set of unilateral and multilateral pressures should create a new template for how the U.S. and broader international community respond to human rights violators in Sudan.”

The Satellite Sentinel Project combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker to deter the resumption of full-scale war between North and South Sudan. George Clooney's Hollywood group Not On Our Watch provided seed money to launch the Satellite Sentinel Project. Other members of "Not On Our Watch" include Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Jerry Weintraub and David Pressman.

The Enough Project contributes field reports and policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch and Sudan Now pressures policymakers by urging the public to act. The United Nations satellite imagery organization, UNOSAT, analyzes satellite images and collaborates with Google and Trellon to design the web platform. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative provides research and leads the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that add context to the imagery. DigitalGlobe provides the satellite images and additional analysis.