The Spies of the Eelam War

Abdul H. Azeez, from the Sunday Leader, 24 April 2011

It was May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army was advancing fast under heavy fire. The LTTE, or what remained of them were giving no quarter as the battles intensified. Things got ugly, and civilians died. After the dust settled, no one knew quite what happened. The winners rejoiced, while the losers were eliminated. But unbeknownst to the people on the ground, there were watchers far above in the skies recording their every move.

Between May 6 and May 10, 2009, thousands of IDP structures were removed from the CSZ, Analysis Area – The CSZ in northeastern Sri Lanka is shown in blue. The area covered by the AAAS analysis is outlined in red., Shell approach, and mortar positions – or each crater, the likely path of the approaching shell was derived based on eject  a patterns. , 342 graves (estimated) at this location. Image © 2009 GeoEye, Susan Wolfinbarger and Rohan Samarajiva.

The pictures obtained by these satellites found their way through to various companies, governments and human rights organisations. They wormed their way through quagmires of bureaucracies and nongovernmental organisations and research firms. They ended up on the desks of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) where a researcher named Lars Bromley started taking a closer look at them. And from there they ended up on a United Nations probe report, silently accusing the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. “New grave sites appeared everyday in the photos,” says Susan Wolfinbarger, now head of the AAAS’s Science and Human Rights Programme, the department that Bromley used to lead. “We did identify 1,346 individual graves, as well as bombshell craters, destruction of many structures, and identified mortar positions that were assumed to be of the Sri Lankan army.” “In our report, we provide the technical details for analysis that was conducted regarding the impact craters from shelling and how the patterns left on the ground by their impact can trace the flight trajectory back toward its origin” says Wolfinbarger, speaking of the methodology used. “Our analysis of these trajectories led to probable mortar locations of the Sri Lankan Army. We additionally identified the removal of thousands of IDP structures that were located in the civilian safety zone.”

How it works

So how does the whole thing work? Why would a random satellite take pictures of things on the ground? In this case, the pictures were ordered. The satellites in use are commercial satellites. And according to Wolfinbarger anyone can purchase images of any place these satellites have a view of.

The pictures used by the AAAS are usually ordered and commissioned for research by outside parties. At the time when the Sri Lankan pictures were taken, Wolfinbarger’s department was funded by the MacArthur Foundation. They would partner with human rights organisations to produce geospatial analysis related to events of interest to them. In addition toSri Lanka, a lot of work was also done in war tornDarfur,Burma and more recently in theMiddle East. The AAAS was approached to do the Sri Lankan analysis at the beginning of the incidents near the civilian safety zone in early May 2009.

“We did not order the satellite images. Other people had ordered the images (we don’t know who), when events such as those in Sri Lanka occur, many organisations (and governments) are interested in gaining imagery of the location and submit orders,” Wolfinbarger said. “You are basically buying the satellite time for when it passes over the location of interest in its orbital path. This means that all the time can be quickly sold.” She also said that attempts to obtain further images at the time were turned down as all the satellite time was sold, attesting to the heavy demand for images of Sri Lanka at the time.
“After images are collected, they go into the archives of the companies which operate the satellites. From that point, anyone can search the archives and purchase the imagery. Purchasing images from the archives also comes at a much reduced rate than the purchase of newly collected images, which helps in keeping costs lower. This is what we did in the case ofSri Lanka — once imagery was available in archives, we purchased it.”

Analysing the pictures

Most of these images look like your traditional Google Earth (an online free satellite imaging service) output. “Commercial satellite imagery has a resolution of 50cm at best. Thmeans that the smallest feature on the ground that the satellite can discern has to be 50cm in size,” says Wolfinbarger adding that “this means that you can see things such as tents, shell craters, trees, graves, and vehicles. The resolution is not fine enough to see individual people”. Only large groups of people can be clearly seen.

But what was lost in terms of clarity, Bromley made up with analysis and legwork. Bromley reportedly works with huge 16 by 16 feet images to analyse what takes place on the ground. In the case of the photos taken fromSri Lanka, they were as usual, not sufficiently fine grain to reveal corpses, so Bromley and his team focused on other aspects like the damage caused by mortar fire; shattered buildings and destroyed infrastructure. They also looked at incremental developments in places where refugees had gathered previously, making special note of the appearance of craters and other signs of fire.

How it all started

Satellite spying has been around since satellites first emerged with the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. The first Sputnik could only send beeping signals, but it was only a matter of time before real images became a possibility. TheUS’s cold war fears sparked a competition between the two nations to launch increasingly advanced satellites used more and more for military and spying purposes to study enemy structures.

Things took on a new aspect however, when the French entered into the satellite game with a business oriented model. They literally sold their satellite images to buyers. French satellites were used to monitor the Bosnian peace accords in the mid 1990s. Today, many organisations and media corporations own satellites, and seemingly data is there to be purchased for all buyers. The only restriction being the finding of a satellite owner willing to sell you services.

The right and wrong of it

This brings in the broader aspect of ethics into the question. It is one thing for mutually hostile parties to secretively spy on one another, and entirely a different thing for there to exist a whole legitimate industry making money of selling satellite images. The Sunday Leader asked Rohan Samarajiva, a regional information communication technology expert about the issue. “(Initially) the issue of national sovereignty being compromised by ‘eyes in the sky’ was very much on the agenda.  They spent a lot of effort on it but never agreed to a convention, so international law is silent on the subject,” says Samarajiva.

That silence is still prevalent. “You must understand that we’re not talking only about photographs, but images captured, for example using frequencies outside the visible range such as IR that can cut through clouds and detect heat etc.).  Back then, the images were available only to governments.  Then SPOT images started being marketed at high cost.  With Google Earth (based on Keyhole imagery) the game changed completely where you can get to house/car level for free.”

Situational Ethics

Samarajiva thinks that even though there are no direct laws pertaining to satellite imagery, there is still space for ethics. But ethics are always subjective. “Is it unethical to use satellite imagery to detect deforestation?  I think few would say yes.  Is it unethical to use satellite images to settle disputes about fishing in national waters?  Few would say yes.  The Government of Sri Lanka used such images in the recent discussions withIndia.  Is it unethical to use satellite imagery to plan terrorist attacks?  Many would say yes.  But terrorists are not into ethics. Plus that would depend on one’s definition of terrorism.  Is it unethical to use satellites to gather evidence on crimes against humanity inLibya?  People who don’t like Gaddafi will not say yes.  Gaddafi may object.  So it seems this is a case of situational ethics.”

He added, “I happen to believe that heavy weapons should not be used against civilians.  The Government of Sri Lanka also appears to believe this because assurances to this effect were given.  If this is the case, there should be no ethical objections to the use of satellite imagery to determine whether or not crimes against civilians were committed in 2009”.

The mandate of the AAAS

Does the AAAS take sides? No says Wolfinbarger. ‘(The) AAAS does not assign blame to any parties involved in a conflict which we are monitoring. We are strictly a non-advocacy scientific organisation. We analyse the images for only what is visible within them. If any blame is assigned, it is through the human rights organisations which we partner with”. In the case ofSri Lanka, these organisations were Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The AAAS operates much like a contract organisation for NGOs. “We work on projects that are proposed by human rights organisations for which geospatial analysis is applicable. In the past, we have worked on human rights issues broadly — all rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Wolfinbarger. “We are currently focusing on rights related to secret detention, forced displacement, and mass violence in the context of armed conflict. In the coming year, we plan to further examine the ethical and human rights implications of the use of geospatial analysis.”

The UN report on war crimes was released to the government last week. The pictures of the AAAS play a key role in authenticating the accusations against the government and security forces.

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Filed under citizen journalism, Indian Ocean politics, LTTE, military strategy, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, terrorism, world events & processes

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