Sudan, Genocide and George Clooney’s satellite

I have been pondering the news that George Clooney and the Enough Project are deploying a surveillance satellite in an attempt to deter genocide in Sudan.  The satellite, whose capability has been rented at considerable cost, will apparently be deployed above “trouble spots” on the border dividing North and South Sudan, looking out for troop movements and other indicators of imminent mass killing.  The data will be interpreted at Harvard University and will also be available online.  The idea, according to reports, is to deter genocide by announcing a capability to record atrocities in real time, rather than retrospectively, as has been the case in the past.

The “Satellite Sentinel Project”  has of course attracted a lot of press attention, not least this article in Time magazine, and has been much touted on Twitter.  And getting attention is clearly part of the point – so that Khartoum knows that it’s being watched.  In principle, this is a good idea and the intent is certainly unimpeachable. 

But two questions occur to me.  The first is that most experts believe that any conflict between North and South is unlikely to consist of the mass movement of troops or tank formations over the border for instance, or an invasion by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of the oil fields in the border areas – military activities that can of course easily be identified by satellite.  Conflict in Sudan is instead much more likely to take the form of sporadic highly-localised violence perhaps involving militias working as proxies for the Khartoum government (such as the Janjaweed in Darfur).  Another possibility is of local inter-tribal conflict incited by government provocation and fuelled by supplies of arms, including heavy weapons.  Reports say that the satellite will focus on the tense and disputed region of Abyei, but can it distinguish between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya tribespeople most likely to come to blows in that troubled province?  One suspects that it cannot, thus undermining its credibility as a deterrent.

My second concern is that this initiative, like so many others in these technology-obsessed days, promotes a “tech-heavy”, expensive and – needless to say – fashionable solution above existing mechanisms that exploit that rather under-utilised, unfashionable and ignored resource, local people. The “Satellite Sentinel” project will apparently cost at least $750,000, donated by the Not on Our Watch group of film stars, including Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and others.

As South Sudan approaches the 9 January referendum on its self-determination, a more useful technology platform in the coming weeks may end up being this one. The idea behind Sudan Vote Monitor is that people send text messages to a central number with reports of violence, problems at polling stations, etc. The reports are then mapped, giving a sense of where problems are located. This same technology – Ushahidi – was used during last year’s earthquake in Haiti, and allowed UN and US humanitarian agencies, military etc. to pinpoint where to direct their resources. The US military apparently found it so useful they are now trying to bring it in-house. 

This too is a “tech” solution but one that relies upon the widespread and rather more basic technology of mobile telephones.  Above all, it relies upon the wisdom and observations of local people, surely the best judges of whether conflict is indeed occurring or imminent.

The emphasis on expensive new technology over the voices of local people is evident in another project, the Global Pulse initiative at the UN Secretary-General’s office.  Again, the motive is worthy: to collect electronic data – such as grain prices – in “real time” in order to give warning of imminent conflict or humanitarian crisis.  But here again, millions of dollars are being spent when the critical information is already amply available – if only institutions like the UN would listen.  


As I have argued before, it remains a travesty that in UN discussions, for instance at the Security Council, is is all too often the case that local people are absent, uninvited.  These are the people most affected by the decisions made in these elevated bodies; they are also the most informed.  When the UN Security Council considers Darfur, there are no Darfuri representatives at the table.  This is sadly the norm in almost all such discussions, for the UN as a body of governments will not tolerate “non-state actors”, even if they are the legitimate representatives of oppressed people, like ordinary Sudanese.

The UN itself, deployed in thousands of offices across the globe, is also fully capable to collect time-sensitive and on-the-ground data – if only it were better organized to do so.  In my grim experience, the UN is truly terrible at sharing data amongst its myriad and competing bodies and divisions.  The information is there; it is just not used.  Setting up yet another office to collate information is scant solution to this very deep-seated problem.

It would cost nothing to invite the local representatives of affected groups to the UN to present their views now and then. Unfortunately, however, this straightforward and available reform, which could be instituted tomorrow if officials and diplomats at the UN so chose, lacks the glamour – and expense – of trendy new web-based platforms like Global Pulse – or satellites.  It is a great pity that Ban ki-Moon himself, with the authority of the Secretary-General, or a single film star, has failed to advocate it.  Fancy software is no solution to this profoundly political deficit.

I admire and salute George Clooney for his dogged commitment to the rights and protection of ordinary Sudanese, but I wish that occasionally at least the public gaze – and celebrity attention – would fall upon rather simpler solutions to the detachment of our political institutions from local realities, which contribute to their evident failure to deter and prevent genocide.  Local people are invariably the wisest and the best and most promptly informed of conflict and other threats to their security.  All we need do is listen to them.


(Full disclosure: Independent Diplomat is providing advice to the Government of Southern Sudan: see more at  This blog, like all the content on this site, is written in a personal capacity.)


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