AIUSA Harnesses Satellite Technology to Monitor South Ossetia

December 5, 2008

AIUSA Harnesses Satellite Technology to Monitor South Ossetia

Winter 2008

AIUSA Harnesses Satellite Technology to

 Momitor South Ossetia

Christoph Koettl

Sattelite image of Georgia
Satellite image of South Ossetia, showing extensive damage to the area. © 2008 ImageSat

Thousands of civilians in South Ossetia bore the brunt of the military conflict between Georgia and Russia that erupted on Aug. 8. Kazbek Djiloev, a resident of the regional capital Tskhinvali, was drinking tea in his home when he heard gunfire followed by tanks and artillery. He told Amnesty International, “Two hours later, I heard explosions, the house shook, the roof exploded and missiles fell on our house.”

Three days after the attack, Amnesty International USA partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to obtain highresolution satellite imagery of South Ossetia to complement AI’s ground mission to the region in late August. The images provide clear evidence of indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian targets, one of AI’s major concerns. The AI ground investigation detailed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict.

Detailed images of the Tskhinvali area, taken Aug. 10 and 19, support the assessment by AI’s ground mission that more than 100 civilian houses in the city were hit by shelling during the initial Georgian bombardment. The Aug. 19 image shows widespread destruction of ethnic Georgian villages surrounding Tskhinvali that was sustained after major hostilities had ended. The Aug. 10 image, for example, showed no damage to Tamarsheni village. But the Aug. 19 image revealed that the majority of buildings in the village had been damaged, confirming reports of looting and burning by South Ossetian militias in territory that was reportedly under Russian control.

“Whenever you see the interior walls of a structure, it means that the structure has no roof, first of all, and secondly, that it wasn’t an explosive that did the damage, necessarily, but probably a fire,” says Lars Bromley, head of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project. “This is consistent with on-the-ground reporting of fires during the conflict.” In response to AIUSA’s image analysis, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili has publicly stated the need for further investigation.

AIUSA has also put high-resolution satellite imaging to use to document human rights violations in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Lebanon. The South Ossetia analysis was the first project in “Satellites for Human Rights,” an AIUSA initiative funded by the Oak Foundation to utilize geospatial technologies for human rights monitoring and conflict prevention.

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