Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 19 June 2008

Capturing the cost of cluster munitions

Last October we blogged that civil society actors seem to be waking up to the usefulness of satellite imaging technologies in trying to hold governments accountable for their actions, for instance for human rights violations or failure to protect civilians in conflict. (In contrast, the value of satellite imagery in traditional arms control was known from early in the Cold War - but cost and tight government control over access to imagery generally kept it out of the hands of non-state actors.) Amnesty International launched a website last year in partnership with the University of California at Berkeley to watch over parts of Darfur. And the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) later released similar satellite images of Myanmar.

Wired Magazine ran an interesting piece on 13 June, which presented some of the images collated by the AAAS's Geospatial Technology and Human Rights Project, which you can take a look at here. Its gallery presents a series of before and after satellite photographs spanning the globe, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe to Myanmar, Eritrea, Sudan and even North Korea.

Among these images were two from Southern Lebanon. Conflict there in the summer of 2006 between Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah saw both sides use cluster munitions - IDF launching them into Southern Lebanon on a massive scale, especially in the last few days of fighting.

A Human Rights Watch report, Flooding South Lebanon: Israel's Use of Cluster Munitions in Lebanon in July and August 2006 made considerable use of commercially-available satellite images matched with global positioning data to show the locations of cluster strikes and document their effects. In this way, satellite imagery played a role in raising the profile of concerns about the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions, and therefore to the achievement of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) through the Oslo Process, in which Human Rights Watch was active as a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition.

And Human Rights Watch wasn't alone. Aerial and satellite photographs were also used by other NGOs on cluster munitions. Norwegian People's Aid, working with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and an independent explosive ordnance expert, Colin King, used similar techniques in their report, M85 - An Analysis of Reliability, which was presented and discussed in two Oslo Process conferences. And a Landmine Action UK report just out, entitled Counting the Cost: The economic impact of cluster munition contamination in Lebanon, cross-referenced satellite imagery of land use with data from the Information Management System for Mine Action (or IMSMA, which despite its title sometimes covers other forms of unexploded ordnance.)

John Borrie

GoogleEarth map of Lebanon from the Google Earth Blog.