Using satellite image to unveil human rights abuses

Amnesty International

Amnesty International has started to work with commercial satellite image providers to capture evidence of human rights abuses around the world.

Satellite imagery was exclusive to governments until it was privatised in the late 1990s, enabling commercial providers to sell satellite images and data. This has allowed human rights organisations such as Amnesty to use the images and analysis to draw attention to issues that might otherwise be overlooked because they are based on unverified accounts.

Previously, Amnesty would receive on the ground reports about human rights violations, but verifying the authenticity of the reports has been difficult, particularly in remote or inaccessible areas. By analysing detailed satellite images Amnesty has been able to show the extent of several atrocities, including attacks by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, evidence of mass graves in Burundi, as well as Hungary’s efforts to repel refuges and asylum seekers at its boarders. 

The use of satellites is still limited as a research tool, due to gaps in quantity and quality of the images. But this is set to change in the future with companies starting to send smaller and cheaper satellites into space. For human right monitoring this could mean that instead of having snapshots, it could move towards have much bigger archives and enabling much more detailed research and action to be undertaken.    

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