Eyes in the sky

In 2009, we had the end of a war often flagged as one without witness. This is not entirely correct. There were of course witnesses. Taschen has a book on photography that features a slain Prabhakaran surrounded by a sea of ebullient khaki. Most in that photo sport digital cameras. From Channel 4’s infamous video to photographs of Prabhakaran’s son, first eating chocolate, then with bullet holes in his torso, there were witnesses aplenty in those final, hellish months of the war in early 2009. The issue often was not so much getting images, but the independent verification of what really was going on. Both the Army and the LTTE, at the time, fought two battles – one on the ground, one around propaganda. The theatre of war at the time involved the dissemination of really disturbing imagery, including sometimes footage, judging by vantage point, perspective and framing, shot by victims themselves. And since independent media weren’t allowed in, with embedded journalists only ever providing a partial perspective, the conditions on the ground were out of sight and out of mind for those in the South, some of whom remain convinced, to this day, that war’s end was in the main a humanitarian effort aimed at saving lives, conducted with clinical precision.

Three years after the end of the war, using nothing more than the historical imagery available on Google Earth, I examined in detail the satellite imagery of Nandikadal and surrounding areas. The scorched earth, the incredible concentration of tents in a sliver of land, the large black circles on the ground that emerged from one point of time to another, the evisceration of trees, verdant green fields replaced by brown or a grey over just a few months – these are all covered in detail in reports believed or contested vehemently, but are facts on the ground, through a witness in space, that can’t be wished away. The commercial imagery on Google Earth isn’t enough to provide the kind of analysis one needs to determine perpetrators of alleged war crimes. We just see the magnitude of the devastation, and it alone is deeply unsettling. In another story at around the same time, also using nothing more than Google Earth imagery spanning a few years, I looked at how mass graves in the region were slowly taken over by nature. Google Earth remains an under-utilised programme – most install it, immediately zoom in to see if they can see the roof of their home and neighbourhood, share it with family and friends and never re-open the programme. But what the programme actually did was something quite extraordinary – it democratised the use and access to satellite imagery. Till recently, that’s the best ordinary citizens had access to. Higher resolution tiles – as satellite images are referred to – cost enormous amounts of money, and are hard to procure even with cash in hand. The highest resolution imagery remains classified and inaccessible to anyone outside intelligence agencies and the military establishment. And even though the end of Sri Lanka’s war was captured from space, a lot of that imagery, including from the UN’s own UNOSAT, remains inaccessible.

This context is important to keep in mind when appreciating the historical significance of the eighty-eight satellites launched into space from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, last month. The launch made the news for setting a record for the most satellites ever launched on a single rocket, a shining testimony to Indian space engineering. But the true importance of the launch was something much greater, and will only be realised in the months and years to come. The eighty-eight satellites now orbiting earth are now part of a larger constellation, totalling one hundred and forty-nine in all. That too is a record. But what makes this ring of eyes in space special is the capability it gives, for the first time, civilian actors to monitor from space developments on the ground. The achievement is staggering – the constellation is now able to photograph Earth’s entire landmass, every single day. Let that sink in.

When I first started to look into and write about the potential of technology to change the gaze of human rights, I worked in a context where WAP enabled phones allowed, on pixelated, monochromatic screens, the first, excruciatingly slow access to a very restricted web. SMS was the norm, and mobile phones were used predominantly to actually call people. There was no social media. There were no smartphones. And yet even then, the trajectory of technology was clear – in the hands of many, the new vectors it would provide to bear witness would change the way violence and human rights violations were reported on. These satellites now in space are a paradigm shift, and the natural evolution of technology, first in a restricted, exclusive, expensive domain, slowly making its way into more civilian theatres of operation and access, for free or comparably much less cost. The applications are many and are anchored to a central, simple fact. You can no longer hide the impact of large scale atrocities by blocking off ground level access to the frontlines. At a much lower altitude, drones can capture ground-truths that would a few years ago have been hidden. At a much higher, and impossible to shoot down altitude, satellites can provide information around what has happened in a particular area – with insights into enforced displacement, new settlements, key formations, large scale or targeted destruction, new construction, diversions and even newly established camouflage. Groups like Amnesty International are already using this imagery to examine attacks against refugee and internally displaced camps around the world. Aided by significant advances in image processing, there are now techniques to identify mass graves from space as well as the detection and counting of shelters in displacement camps.

Imagery from this satellite constellation, and others in space, can be used to document development, and its impact. Over a period of time, this provides unprecedented insights into everything from urban development and land use to desertification or riparian conditions. But if I am honest, what interests me the most is the use of this data in the domain of human rights. To be clear, there is no guarantee the political will to address violations will in any way be strengthened as a consequence of this content in the public domain. What this imagery does do is to help concerned actors name and shame those who could have taken life-saving decisions, but did not, including governments and international entities like the UN. In the near future, claiming ignorance as a way to excuse inaction around rapidly escalating or sustained human rights violations will be moot. Local media censorship and severe restrictions on access to theatres of hostilities will be moot. Claims that shelling and targeting of civilians didn’t occur, or were done by rebel forces, can now be independently verified, and not just by a select few long after the violations were committed. Imagery, with speed and at scale, can be opened up for scrutiny, erasing accusations of partisan bias, partial analysis or selective use of imagery.


What to some readers may appear still to be the domain of a few who have access to these tools and content is in fact a significant shift in power, unimaginable just a few years ago. I am excited by the technological development, but I am driven by the potential of what it offers for those interested in protecting those most vulnerable to violent conflict. New horizons in this kind of content generation brings new challenges around data use, retention, ethics, access, verification and timely, effective response – but these are challenges I would take any day over an information vacuum or worse, a context where the only news and information covering an issue is manufactured by those who propagate violence.

The fog of war can mask or erase facts on the ground, but one hundred and forty-nine impartial witnesses in the sky now watch over the worst of us every single day, to give our better angels a strategic advantage they never had before. That’s something to celebrate.


First published in The Sunday Island, 12 March 2017.


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