Google and UN to monitor Sudan referendum via satellite

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A pressure group founded by George Clooney has teamed up with the UN, Harvard University and Google to use satellite images to try and monitor next month's referendum in Sudan.

The referendum, mandated as part of a 2005 peace deal, could see oil-rich southern Sudan seceding from the north, and has raised fears of a return to the violence that plagued the country for two decades.

"One of the biggest risks in this dangerous moment is that an incident on the highly armed border could lead to wider conflict. The government in Khartoum has armed militias in contested bordering regions, the government air force has bombed border areas, and both sides have massed military units and equipment along the hottest border spots," say George Clooney and campaigner John Prendergast.

"These areas have witnessed some of the most deadly conflict in the world since World War II. The former director of national intelligence says that Southern Sudan is the place in the world most likely to experience genocide."

Under the plan, images from commercial satellites will be made available in as little as 24 hours, rather than two weeks as at present. UN observers will examine them for evidence of mass movements of displaced people, destruction of villages and the like.

In the past, say the organisers, the Sudanese government has simply denied its involvement in mass atrocities. Because photographers couldn't get anywhere near, it took years to amass evidence of genocide. Now, say the organisers, they'll be able to spot atrocities in near real time.

"Deterrence is our objective," says Prendergast. "We want to contribute to the prevention of war between North and South Sudan. If war does ignite, we want to hold accountable those responsible, and hopefully deter human rights crimes that would be committed in the context of war."

The Satellite Sentinel Project is available here.