WASHINGTON -- A team of human right experts at Harvard University will begin analyzing satellite images of Sudan later this week in the hopes of staving off a civil war after the southern section of the troubled nation votes in a January referendum on whether to secede.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which is being funded by actor and activist George Clooney's humanitarian group, Not on Our Watch, will rely on the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to assess the situation on the ground, where hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Darfur region have been slaughtered over the past decade in ethnic violence.
"We want to see if we actually make a difference in keeping people safe," said Nathaniel Raymond, the program director at Harvard.
The project, which will officially get underway on Dec. 30, is intended to influence the behavior of the Sudanese government, which is blamed for perpetrating the genocide. It will be funded over the next six months by $750,000 that will also cover the cost of buying time on privately owned imaging satellites.
The launch was announced earlier today by Clooney in an interview with Time.
"We are the antigenocide paparazzi," Clooney, who has been to Sudan four times since 2006, told the magazine. "We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum."
At the Harvard Humanitarian Institute, three full-time analysts will pore over satellite images provided by the United Nations' Operational Satellite Applications Programme and gather other research from public and private sources to determine what Raymond called the "human rights context."
They will be supported by a variety of other specialists at Harvard, including experts in international law, the military, and humanitarian operations.
"What do the abuses shown in the images mean?" Raymond explained. "We want to determine the difference between an attack on a hospital, an attack on a village, or an attack on water supplies, and how that relates to international law and human rights standards."
The project, which will publish all of its findings at www.satsentinel.org, is also designed to shame the international community into taking action if the upcoming referendum prompts the Sudanese regime to perpetrate more abuses.
"This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ĎOK, if you guys donít want to do anything about it, thatís one thing,íĒ Clooney told Time. "But you canít say you did not know.Ē
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.