Mass Atrocities in the Digital Age – Can We Stop a Genocide With Our Cell Phone?

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Todd Lappin  (CC-BY)

 

By Koen Kluessien -

“Never again” is an oft-repeated quote at Holocaust remembrances and unlike the adagio “lest we forget”, it encompasses a call to action to prevent future mass atrocities. The idea is that through remembering past atrocities history will not repeat itself – a notion that was also echoed in international policies. For example, in 1948 the United Nations established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a concept that arose directly from the experience of the Second World War. Still, the declaration’s thirty articles could not stop South Africa’s ruling National Party that was then introducing apartheid as an official government policy. This lack of direct action became exemplary for policies that followed.  In 2005 the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. However, due to international political divisions, the Security Council has failed to uphold its basic function: the maintenance of international peace and security. Now it seems independent organizations are taking matters in their own hands to prevent and deal with mass atrocities How? Through technology.

Genocides do not happen over the course of a day, it is a long-term and deliberate process. This means that although only military intervention will stop the extermination, there are other means of ending the process before it reaches the phase of mass killing. This is especially important to note given the fact that most national governments and transnational organizations such as the United Nations are reluctant or do not have the resources to intervene. In ten stages Gregory Stanton has explained how the process of most genocides has to go through each of the phases before it can reach a new level. Stanton emphasizes that the ten stages are predictable and above all, can be stopped by preventive measures.

The Sentinel Project is one of many organizations attempting to prevent future genocides with the help of technology and Stanton’s ten stages of genocide. One of the obvious strategies of the organization is to gather information through social media. Twitter and Facebook have already demonstrated to be very successful assets to retrieve information from repressive regimes. A slightly more elaborate endeavor is to ‘crowdsource’ information through mobile phones. Ushahidi (meaning “testimony” in Swahili) is one application through which people have mapped reports of different crises. Through the app, users can retrieve, manage, and map data. This way researchers and policy makers will have a bulk of shared information instead of a number of individual entries. Or in the words of the creators of Ushahidi:

We built software to meet our own needs: the need to tell the story – the many stories – that were unfolding, spreading, exploding in an informational vacuum. We began as technology users who focused on making our own communities more resilient.

 

data-management

Source: https://www.ushahidi.com/

 

Still, these techniques predominantly focus on those phases in the genocidal process in which much of the harm has already been done. The Sentinel Project’s most exciting field of expertise is the area in which technology can play a role in the actual prevention of genocides. Even Hollywood actor George Clooney wants a part in it. Together with the Sentinel Project’s founder John Prendergast Clooney has conceived the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), during a joint visit to South Sudan in 2010. The Project produces reports on the state of the conflict in the regions between Sudan and South Sudan. Through satellite imagery and analysis, the project draws up reporting that is then sent to the press and policymakers. Clooney has jokingly referred to it as the “anti-genocide paparazzi”. Although the organization’s  subtitle “The world is watching because you are watching” has a Hollywood-like flair to it, it is a new form of research that is to be taken seriously. SSP has already located numerous human rights violations. The organization was for example the first to find evidence of the destroying of the villages of Maker Abior, Todach, and Tajalei in Sudan’s Abyei region.

 

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Satellite image of the burning of Tajalei, Sudan (6 March 2011). Source: Digital Globe/Satellite Sentinel Project

 

One does not have to be a spy anymore to use satellite imagery. These days, there are numerous companies that have half a dozen satellites orbiting around the globe for your viewing pleasure. Some images can display about 50 cm² in each pixel of your computer screen. To be more specific: it is detailed enough to tell the difference between cars and military trucks and track the movement of troops from space. Lars Bromley, a high-ranking UN imagery analyst, has described the private satellite imagery as “Google Earth on lots of steroids”.

Unfortunately, the SSP was disbanded in 2015. According to its founders this was due to the start of a new project in which Prendergast and Clooney try to dismantle the networks of perpetrators and facilitators of armed conflict through the analysis of their financial supporters. Yet it must be taken into account that a lack of success must have played a role in the disbanding of the organization. Although the organization was fairly successful in indicating human rights violations, it never led to any serious direct impact. Crisis mapping expert Patrick Meier states that one important reason for the lack of success is time. It takes between eight to twenty-four hours for the satellite imagery to develop, whereas raiding a village can be done in less than a few hours. More importantly, deterrence is a strategy that only truly works when governments threaten with direct and immense retaliation so that aggressors will suffer great damage as a result of their action. Clearly, this was not an option for the SSP, an independent organization without any military or police force.

The lack of direct impact on conflicts should not be a reason to simply stop using technology to end human rights violations. The problem is not the way in which the data is gathered, but the implementation of the information. Clearly, satellite imagery and information sent from mobile phones in the region should not be focused on the deterrence of genocidaires. Instead, it should be a way to hold our own governments accountable to their Responsibility to Protect. In the past, R2P as a mere commitment signed by UN member states has proven to be inadequate. Still, with more organizations finding ways to implement technology in their analyses and more people documenting what is happening on the ground, governments can be held accountable with more up-to-date and detailed reports of human rights violations. By all means, technology will contribute to R2P’s third pillar that focuses on the fact that

in a rapidly unfolding emergency situation, the United Nations, regional, subregional and national decision makers must remain focused on saving lives through “timely and decisive” action […].

We have to be tenacious in finding new tools for genocide research. Only then will technology play a role in winning the fight against genocide.

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Koen Kluessien

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