On April 4, 2016, the Guardian published, “How satellites are being used to expose human rights abuses,” discussing the increasing use of satellite and geospatial technology to monitor and document human rights violations by NGOs.

This technology has been useful for pinpointing the location of mass graves, secret prison camps, and militant encampments. It has also played an important role in surveying environmental damage from armed conflict and natural disasters.

Many NGOs, however, are also purporting to use satellite imagery as evidence to “prove” violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) such as war crimes. As noted in the Guardian article and our paper in the Israel Law Review, “IHL 2.0: Is there a Role for Social Media in Monitoring and Enforcement?” Amnesty International has been one of the early adopters of this technology and envisioned that it would not only have a monitoring function, but hoped it would play a key role in bringing perpetrators of IHL violations to justice. In 2007, for instance, the NGO launched the Eyes on Darfur project, which used high-resolution satellite imaging to monitor ‘ war-torn’ villages in Darfur. Through the project, Amnesty hoped “to provide unimpeachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur – enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts”.

This project was expanded for use in conflicts in Nigeria and Pakistan, where mapping is
coupled with links to witness statements, photos, video footage and other documentation. Most recently, Amnesty created a similar site called the “Gaza Platform” purporting to document violations committed by Israel during the 2014 Gaza War. (See NGOM’s analysis and oped).

Despite the façade of technology and scientific analysis, these platforms do not facilitate the communication of complex ideas or provide context for complicated events. Professor Yvgeny Morozov who studies new technologies and social media has remarked that such applications often “prioritize[] the tool over the environment, and, as such, [are] deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies … it ignores context and entraps policymakers into believing that they have a useful and powerful ally on their side.”

The myopic approach of satellite platforms like Amnesty’s, therefore, can be especially problematic when trying to ascertain whether a violation of IHL has actually taken place, because it is uncertain if the complexity, nuance and context of IHL can be adequately conveyed. As a body of law, IHL is highly technical and many key IHL provisions are often difficult to interpret and are undermined by a lack of consensus. These provisions have been hotly debated and involve much controversy, including the application of the principle of proportionality, the concept of direct participation of civilians in hostilities, and the overlap between IHL and human rights norms.

Platforms employing satellite imagery, like those created by Amnesty, are generally not developed by those with the requisite legal or military expertise, and may further complicate the legal analysis of a particular event where IHL is implicated.

Some applications may help to identify the location of an armed conflict or the outcome of an event (for example, number of people killed or a building damaged), but they offer only limited utility in determining whether IHL violations have taken place. This is particularly true on Amnesty’s Gaza platform where the actions of Hamas and armed Palestinian groups were deliberately erased, targeting information was unknown, and the narrative accompanying each incident purporting to be documented consisted of unverified accounts copied from non-credible Palestinian sources. Similarly, Amnesty’s Eyes on Darfur project, which used satellite imagery to map destroyed buildings in villages in Sudan, claimed that such imagery would provide “unimpeachable evidence” of war crimes. Yet, like on the Gaza Platform, these images did not show the context of battles, how the buildings were destroyed, who destroyed the buildings, whether the destroyed buildings were military objectives, whether combatants were present at the time of the fighting, and other critical components necessary for making a determination as to whether an IHL violation had, in fact, occurred.

Notably, the Guardian article offers a glimpse of the real value of such applications. It recounts how the use of satellite technology helped Amnesty get media attention for a story it was doing on Nigeria that it otherwise would not have gotten, because of the splashy imagery and the technological façade. In other words, these satellite projects by Amnesty and other NGOs are just another tool for generating PR and media attention. They cannot stand in the place of real forensic analysis by actual military and legal experts.