Satellites Correctly Predict Military Campaign Against Civilians in Sudan

Satellites correctly predicted a new military campaign by government forces on Sudan’s civilians—so why is the international community turning a blind eye to the violence?

12.09.13 10:45 AM ET

At the end of October, I wrote about how the Satellite Sentinel Project observed ominous troop movements that warned against an impending attack on civilians in Sudan’s South Kordofan state. Since then, the Sudanese government has launched a multi-front military campaign in the area. At the same time, it has escalated the tempo of aerial bombardment and resumed its scorched earth campaign against civilians. South Kordofan Governor Adam Al-Faki has vowed to conduct a “comprehensive cleanup campaign” and the Minister of Defense said his troops will “not stop until we crush them.” We predicted these developments, but we didn't want to be right. Without a commitment from international policymakers to push for real change, this deadly violence will continue.

The Satellite Sentinel Project, or SSP, a partnership between the Enough Project and private satellite operator DigitalGlobe, has pioneered the use of satellite technology to respond to atrocity crimes. While Human Rights Watch and Amnesty also analyze archival satellite imagery to document human rights abuses and war crimes, our program has the capacity to select which part of Sudan to image on a daily basis. When combined with information from an extensive network of human-rights monitors and citizen journalists within Sudan, this tasking capability means that the Satellite Sentinel Project curates an almost constant stream of imagery corresponding to the latest developments in the country. As a consequence, SSP can issue early warnings to civilians at risk.

Unfortunately, neither documentation effort nor early warnings cannot stop the violence for good. Every day now, SSP sees more bomb craters, burned villages, and scorched earth in Sudan. Mirroring its engagement on Syria, Egypt and Iran, the United States must do much more to address the root causes of violence and repression in Sudan. 

Caught Red Handed

Last week, SSP satellites caught Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF, in action as they burned civilian dwellings in the town of Kundukr in South Kordofan state. This imagery shows SAF troops on the scene as huts smolder in the aftermath of their assault. At least 142 homes are already burned as SAF forces refueled their vehicles. 

No rebel troops were detected in the area at the time of the attack. This type of indiscriminate violence against civilians in its conflict zones has become the hallmark of Sudanese government campaigns. Clashes between the Sudanese government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front, or SRF, rebel coalition further exacerbate the deepening humanitarian crisis in Sudan's war zones. In the four-day period of November 21 and 25, violence displaced some 25,000 civilians from the Nuba Mountains.

Images from November 17 show huge impact craters in Buram county in South Kordofan state where just two bombs obliterated the area of an entire football field. According to military experts, based on the pattern of the craters and video evidence of the attack, these bombs were probably dropped by Fencer Su-42 planes, which Sudan acquired from Belarus earlier this year. In August, the Satellite Sentinel Project was the first to secure independent confirmation that the new Fencer aircraft were in Sudan and on the runway. A loophole in the U.N.'s arms embargo on Sudan allows this sale, as long as Sudan promises that it will not use its newly-purchased planes in Darfur. This fig leaf of legality must be stripped away, otherwise violence will persist.

Rethinking Our Approach

The conflict in Sudan is not confined to one region. The world's response should not be either. The United States is actively engaged on brokering a peace in Syria, Iran, and Israel. However, the American approach to Sudan is stuck in neutral. When Secretary of State John Kerry met with Sudanese Foreign Minister Karti in late September, he did not even mention the government's contemporaneous violent repression of peaceful protesters. The International Monetary Fund's consultations on Sudan made no mention of the gross human rights violations and atrocity crimes ongoing in the country. This kind of silence is insidious. Creditor governments should not consider providing debt relief for the Sudanese government without necessary transformational political reform and end to the violence.

Right now, attempts to broker peace in Sudan are artificially divided. Although the rebels coordinate military and humanitarian affairs as the Sudan Revolutionary Front, discussions on Darfur are reserved for a Doha-led process while a deal for South Kordofan and Blue Nile has to be brokered by the African Union in Addis Ababa. Those in the east of the country are governed by a separate peace agreement signed in Eritrea. All these parallel efforts make it easy for the Sudanese government to play each process against the other. Instead of ineffectually attempting to address Sudan's interconnected conflicts separately, the international community must come together around a comprehensive unified mediation process that deals with the common problems of Sudan—repression, regional and ethnic discrimination, corruption, and inadequate political representation. 

A more peaceful, just future is possible in Sudan, but the international community will need to fundamentally alter our policy approach to get there. Stakeholders must all deepen, not divide our diplomatic engagement. Worryingly, Canada recently ended its task force on Sudan and the European Union decided to end the mandate for a Special Representative for Sudan and South Sudan, folding the Sudans into a broader regional mandate and removing the needed exclusive focus. Even the African Union's special panel for Sudan and South Sudan seems to be expanding its to a conference on the entire Horn of Africa as well. At this critical moment, this diffusion of attention is potentially crippling. Most importantly, Western aid and development agencies need to dramatically increase their support to Sudanese change makers pushing for an alternate future. Communications tools and political platform building workshops could be catalytic. Divisions in the ruling party are growing and activists are predicting a ”Sudanese Summer” political uprising sooner or later.

Until then, as SSP Co-Founder George Clooney promised, "We're going to keep watching and reporting to keep the spotlight on as bombs drop from the sky and villages burn once again."