Almost four years ago, George Clooney looked up at the East African stars and wondered why no one was looking back.
“About nine people had just been slaughtered in a town near us, so we’re sleeping out in the desert,” he recounted to Variety from his retreat in Italy. “I just kept saying ‘How is it you can Google Earth my house and anybody can take a picture of me anytime, anywhere, and you can’t do that with a war criminal?’
“I thought, well, it seems to me that we should even the score a little bit.”
That planted the seed for the Satellite Sentinel Project, which takes satellite images of global hot spots, passes them on to professional analysts and releases its findings publicly.
Activist John Prendergast, who was in the desert with Clooney that night in 2010, says, “George and I envisioned it as sort of an experiment: Let’s see if a government willing to commit genocide to stay in power could possibly be moved with the right amount of exposure.” In short, it was a test of the old maxim that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The project pioneered the use of satellite imagery for combatting human rights violations. DigitalGlobe provides satellite photos for SSP; analysts receive them with no digital enhancement, so there can be no doubt about tampering.
Three years later, the results of SSP’s experiment are in, and Clooney and Prendergast agree: They have been mixed. So while continuing its mission, the SSP is refocusing its spotlight on those who’d prefer to remain in the shadows.
SSP’s satellite images and analysis had an obvious impact at first, says Clooney: attacks on civilians shifted from daylight to nighttime, or to cloudy days, as militias and armies avoided the eye in the sky.
Some governments and groups “are certainly pissed off at us,” says Akshaya Kumar, who doubles as Sudan coordinator for Satellite Sentinel Project and Sudan and South Sudan Policy Analyst for the Enough Project. “The government was able to say without any challenge, to the international community ‘People are lying, they just have a second agenda, there’s no proof of this.’ Now with this satellite imagery there is a counterweight to that. We have been able to corroborate the reports of really brave citizen journalists working in places like the Nuba Mountains and Darfur and say, ‘This is what they say, and our satellite imagery confirms (that).’ ”
SSP has documented the re-emergence of the infamous Janjaweed as a paramilitary force fighting around Sudan, and even beyond its borders. It expanded satellite observation to the neighboring Central African Republic, using infrared to penetrate the forest canopy. SSP images have been used by prosecutors at the Intl. Criminal Court.
But there are limits to that approach. For one, the public can quickly go numb from constant inundation of horror stories. The SSP found it had to pick and choose which atrocities to highlight.
“I absolutely believe that sunlight is the best way,” says Clooney. “I just worry sometimes that too much sunlight and everybody ends up sunburnt — and doesn’t seem to really know it and doesn’t seem to really care.”
As a result, says Clooney, “there’s a little bit of showmanship involved.” Sometimes that means bringing in star journalists like Ann Curry or Nicholas Kristof, knowing they bring the spotlight with them. “It’s a constantly moving thing, you know, this idea of exposure,” Clooney says.
But no matter how carefully SSP calibrates its efforts to achieve maximum public impact, there’s a bigger problem: Governments and the U.N. imposed no consequences for atrocities, even those that found public attention.
Says Clooney: “We’ve shown mass graves, we’ve shown actual bombing of innocent civilians, and we’ve shown troop buildups. (But) when they saw after a period of time that nothing changes, then (they) go, ‘Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter if the lights are on. We’re just gonna keep on acting anyway.’ ”
SSP and other orgs will continue to study satellite imagery to track atrocities, but SSP will next work to expose people who care more than Sudanese militiamen whether their good names are implicated in genocide: bankers and financiers. Without them, government officials couldn’t use inconvertible (that is, worthless) Sudanese pounds to buy weapons on the open market.
Clooney says: “We know the banks. They’re all pretty much the same banks we all use. We’re really gonna go after them and make it very public.”
After documenting atrocities in South Sudan, Kumar says, “Now we want to connect with consequences for people who are blocking the peace process. So by tracing assets and finding out where funds are diverted, we really put people who are in decision-making positions in the South Sudanese government and on the rebel side in the hot seat.”
Clooney says the warm reception for Satellite Sentinel Project has been a pleasure, but being denounced by the likes of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is even better. “It’s expensive as hell to do. But it’s really fun when a war criminal yells out your name and says, ‘You don’t play fair.’ I can’t tell you what a blast that is. It’s every actor’s dream.”