Will Politics Keep Peacekeepers from Harnessing Satellite Imagery?

A satellite image shows at least three active fires visible in Leer, Unity State, South Sudan on February 2, 2014. (ENOUGH Project/Flickr)

In a new report released by Human Rights Watch last month, satellite images revealed destruction of more than 3,800 buildings in Iraq between September and November 2014. In addition to eyewitness accounts, the human rights group analyzed the imagery to determine that most of the buildings were set ablaze or demolished by Iraqi government forces and militias.

This is the third time in as many months that satellite imagery has made headlines for providing alarming evidence of human rights abuses and mass atrocities in conflict-torn regions. It follows Amnesty International’s images of the damage caused by Boko Haram’s recent offensive in northern Nigeria, and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) revealing “terrible human suffering” inflicted on the Syrian people.

As shown by these and other examples, geospatial technology such as satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS) has become an indispensable conflict prevention and management tool. International actors increasingly rely on satellites to monitor areas of interest and corroborate information in remote, conflict-prone regions where fact-finding missions can’t easily operate, such as Syria, northern Mali, and other ungoverned spaces. When interpreted by trained geospatial analysts, satellite imagery can reveal tell-tale signs of conflict such as destroyed villages, the buildup of military contingents, or even dirt tracks made by heavy vehicles and transport. The visual element, meanwhile, helps to convey complex information and patterns in ways that are simple, communicable, and often striking.

Advocacy groups are so far attracting the majority of the media attention in this area. After all, it was actor George Clooney and the organization he co-founded with activist John Prendergast, the Satellite Sentinel Project, which first showed the world shocking imagery of mass grave sites and razed villages in the Abyei region of Sudan in 2010.

However, the United Nations is also quietly finding ways to capitalize on satellite technology through its peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding missions. As we argue in a new International Peace Institute report—aiming to complement the work of the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping and the Secretary-General’s High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations—UN peacekeepers are actively harnessing satellite imagery and providing useful geospatial information and analysis to decision-makers in the field.

Geospatial technology can help peacekeepers fulfill their conflict prevention and management mandate in a variety of ways: by offering technical support for boundary demarcation, by supporting mediation efforts, by gathering evidence of atrocities and other human rights violations, by improving situational awareness, by informing force distribution, and by improving conflict analysis.

For instance, during the early days of the South Sudanese civil war, satellite imagery enabled the United Nations Mission in South Sudan to identify a military convoy of troops and armored vehicles belonging to pro-government forces travelling on the road between Juba and Bor. The early detection of this convoy improved situational awareness on the ground, alerting the peacekeepers of the military presence and giving them the option to take preventive action.

In Darfur, geospatial analysis showed that nearly half of all conflict incidents occurred beyond the range of most patrols by the African Union–United Nations Mission in Darfur, revealing a need for peacekeepers to adjust their “force to space ratios” and project a presence at greater ranges. GIS was instrumental in preventing electoral violence during the 2012 elections in Timor-Leste, where it enabled policemen from the UN Transitional Administration to identify “high risk” areas and thus deploy preventively to the designated polling locations.

There are no satellites in space with the trademark “UN” lettering on the side; instead the organization procures satellite imagery from commercial providers such as DigitalGlobe. As the number of these providers increases, satellite imagery—once strictly within the purview of spy agencies—has become more available and affordable in recent years. The UN also receives imagery from governments such as those of France, the United States, and India. While it has its own satellite agency, the UN Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), the UN Cartographic Section and a cadre of GIS officers in the field typically provide geospatial support to peacekeeping missions.

Despite its promise, satellite imagery will not “revolutionize” conflict prevention, as a recent headline claimed. Many of the reasons are technical in nature. The lag time it takes to process and analyze satellite imagery—typically ranging from a few hours to a few weeks—can be at odds with the time-sensitive nature of peacekeeping operations. This makes it unfit for situations where action often hinges on the swift acquisition of information, such as when peacekeepers are required to intervene to protect civilians.

However, the real test of the UN’s geospatial capabilities will, unsurprisingly, come down to politics. Satellites are less visible to the local population than onsite inspections and, from a legal standpoint, they operate beyond a state’s territorial airspace and do not require authorization (unlike other surveillance technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones). But this does not mean that host countries have welcomed satellite monitoring with open arms, especially when it is used against their objectives or when they have reason to disagree with the results. Some states have expressed concerns that this technology might be used for spying on the location of military installations or points of vulnerability on their territory.

More importantly, since the UN often relies on a handful of powerful member states for the provision of satellite imagery, some parties have questioned either the source of the data itself or the accuracy of its interpretation. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 briefing before the Security Council, in which he presented satellite evidence supposedly revealing Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, may have poisoned the well in this respect.

In 2009, the Sri Lankan government dismissed as “fake” imagery by UNOSAT that provided evidence of atrocities committed by its armed forces during the country’s civil war. More recently, Russia denied the authenticity of NATO satellite imagery showing Russian troop movements along the Ukrainian border. One UN official also confided in us that the organization has been reluctant to apply this technology in the case of the recent Ukraine crisis, likely fearing that this would be perceived by Russia (a permanent member of the Security Council) as taking sides, thereby compromising the UN’s neutrality.

Satellite imagery has proven to be a valuable conflict prevention and management tool, and one with enormous potential. However, the recent uptick in largely uncritical media coverage suggests that a realistic assessment of its limitations is needed. Peacekeepers in particular will need to ensure that geospatial technology strengthens their ability to fulfill their mandate, while taking care to avoid alienating host governments and other parties to the conflict who might have reason to question its intended purpose.

Michael R. Snyder is an independent analyst and a regular contributor to the Global Observatory. Elodie Convergne is a PhD Candidate at Sciences Po Paris (Institute of Political Studies).