Satellite Surveillance: A New Perspective On Human Rights Abuses


Historically, human rights abuses, violations, and war crimes have been extremely hard to verify once reported, often due to the remoteness of the incident, a state’s reluctance to cooperate, or conflicting accounts of events. With the introduction of satellite surveillance technology, earth observation has been revolutionized, and this technology may now be used to expose atrocities where such difficulties arise. A new generation of satellites, approximately the size of shoeboxes, are so advanced that they have the ability to identify people or analyze the direction in which a vehicle is travelling from the orientation of its windshield.

For organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), satellite technology allows for past and present abuses to be traced through images and analysis in parts of the world where access is limited. As a result, awareness can be brought to issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

HRW satellite imagery analyst Josh Lyons says that these new satellites, with a resolution of 30cm per pixel, are revolutionary in that they create “a value and confidence and insight that were impossible otherwise.” Lyons added that this technology is “as important as any other development in the history of space and observation.” In his role at the HRW, Lyons can be contacted to analyze imagery from around the globe. “Normally what happens is the research is overwhelmed with rumors, stories and calls and it’s very hard for them to triage and evaluate these different ideas,” he says. “There’s a lot of false leads constantly distracting them.”

Despite the advanced scope of these satellites, they typically only capture moments directly before or after an event. The effect of this is that satellite images are always susceptible to misinterpretation and are only as good as the analyst examining them. The most notable failing occurred in 2013, when US Secretary of State Colin Powell used satellite images as evidence that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction to build a case to go to war. His interpretation of these images was later proven to be false, and was even labelled by Powell himself as “a great intelligence failure.” This mistake still creates challenges for human rights organizations attempting to persuade dubious governments of the existence of human rights abuses.

Despite Powell’s infamous failure, which proved even state-of-the-art military technology is irrelevant unless interpreted correctly, there have also been many significant triumphs. Satellite imagery has, among other things, helped to successfully locate mass graves in Burundi and prison camps in North Korea, identify Nigerian Boko Haram attacks, and recently to expose a far-reaching campaign of arson against Rohingya villages across Myanmar.

The use of satellites is still a relatively new research tool in the investigation of human rights offenses, but it is clear that the technology is quickly becoming an essential instrument in identifying, recording, and hopefully even preventing these atrocities in the future. A key advantage of this technology is the ability to confront denialism, as occurred when the Myanmar military rejected all allegations of abuse against the Rohingya population. There are still issues around the quantity and quality of the images, with factors such as cloudy weather causing significant delays in accessing useful images, but it is exciting to think that as satellites continue to improve, so will their ability to protect vulnerable individuals across the planet.