Satellites find no evidence of conflict in Sudan | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.02.2011
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Satellites find no evidence of conflict in Sudan

With the final results from Southern Sudan's sensitive independence referendum in the bag, experts say a satellite monitoring program was effective in ensuring that the event passed off peacefully.

A line of people waiting to vote

Southern Sudan voters decided overwhelmingly to secede

While there was never much doubt that last month's referendum wouldn't lead to the secession of Southern Sudan, there was concern that it could spark renewed conflict and shatter the 2005 treaty that laid the ground work for this election.

In order to help prevent a resumption of conflict between the north and south, the American actor-activist George Clooney stepped in to monitor activity on the ground by spearheading the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP).

Since its launch last year, the initiative has been buying images from commercial satellites in order to gain an insight into what is happening in flashpoint areas in the region.

In the weeks following the January 2011 election, where over 99 percent of South Sudanese who voted to secede, SSP satellite images have not revealed any evidence of conflict.

However, at the end of last month, Clooney said the first images, which focus on the area along the north-south border where conflict is most likely to occur, had deepened the understanding of the situation in Southern Sudan following the referendum.

"Although the SAF [Sudanese armed forces] in South Kordofan apparently remains a force in hiding, we showed that they are field-deployed and they are controlling major roads by running checkpoints," Clooney said in a statement on the SSP website.

War is not a must

A satellite high above the earth

Satellites did not detect any major election-related violence in Sudan

Jonathan Hutson, head of communications with the anti-genocide Enough Project which is involved with SSP, told Deutsche Welle that although small military groups had been deployed, the satellite images had not revealed any sign of imminent forward operations.

"This is good news," he told Deutsche Welle. "The challenge is to avoid a return to civil war, which we do not believe is inevitable."

Einar Bjorgo, who analyzes the images for UNOSAT – a UN body which provides satellite solutions to relief and development agencies – said they had not seen any evidence of major conflict.

"We have identified a lot of developments in the area, with numerous returnees coming back," Bjorgo told Deutsche Welle. "Of course there may be military hidden in the area, but we have not observed much."

'So far, so good'

He says it is too soon to tell to what extent the satellite monitoring, contributed to the relatively peaceful nature of the referendum.

"What we are doing has been widely publicized and so far there have been low levels of conflict relating to the referendum," he said. "Maybe it will stay that way, maybe it won't. So far, so good."

Oil fields in Sudan

Oil is one of the issues which has to be resolved

Hutson is optimistic that the Sudan project and others like it, which document the world from heights of hundreds of kilometers above the earth, are vital in safeguarding human rights and encouraging the public to play a role in process.

"For the first time we are acquiring images in real time and making them available to the public so the public can pressurize policy-makers to respond," he said, adding that public calls to action can play a pivotal role in the preservation of peace.

Were one of the images to show "imminent forward operations," Hutson says that information would be made available to the public along with interactive tools to urge politicians to take swift action to halt any conflict before it really had the chance to get underway.

Disputed region

One area the project is watching with a particularly keen eye is oil-rich Abyei, to which both north and south Sudan lay claim and where clashes have left 37 people dead since the start of the year. It is widely considered to be the most sensitive point on the agenda of unresolved issues between the two sides.

"There have been small scale skirmishes there and we hope they will not escalate into a wider conflict," Hutson said. "We are proving that we can add value to those who want to deter conflict."

As things stand, Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project is planned to run for another six months, which would see it come to an end shortly before the Southern Sudan officially becomes the newest country in the world on July 9th.

However, Hutson is optimistic that fresh funds will be raised in order to keep monitoring the region for as long as needed.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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