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February 16, 2008

Satellites for Human Rights

SatelliteThese two satellite images, presented here today, are part of an ongoing court case in the African Union against the government of Zimbabwe. They're also an example of a recent partnership between science and humanitarian groups. Staff of the AAAS Science and Human Rights program analyzed these images in 2006, when lawyers accused Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe of having bulldozed entire villages to prevent people from voting. The government initially dismissed the accusations as routine enforcement of zoning regulations, but satellite images revealed the true extent of the destruction. The "before" photo (left) shows an intact village in 2002; in 2006, the village had been bulldozed (right). Such images are not freely available: AAAS spent $250 to purchase the 2002 photo from an archive, and it shelled out $1792 for a private company to capture an updated photo in 2006.

AAAS became involved in another humanitarian issue last year, when it used satellite images to document government-sanctioned village burning in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The association began working with the technology because most human rights organizations don't have the funds, data processing capacity, or training to analyze satellite images, says Lars Bromley, a geo-information specialist with the AAAS, who presented the images today. "You can't just decide to start using satellite imagery all of a sudden," he says. "My mother couldn't do it. It would be easy to waste 40 hours of your life without accomplishing anything at all."   

--Elsa Youngsteadt

Learn more about the photos here.