News / Africa

Satellite Images May indicate War Crimes in Abyei

Internally displaced people sit under a tree in Turalei, in the south's Twic county, about 130 km (80 miles) from Abyei, May 27, 2011
Internally displaced people sit under a tree in Turalei, in the south's Twic county, about 130 km (80 miles) from Abyei, May 27, 2011

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Joe DeCapua

A bipartisan group of former civilian and military officials say recent satellite images of the Sudanese town of Abyei give visual evidence of alleged war crimes.

The officials include two former U.S. State Department Special Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes, David Scheffer and Pierre Prosper; David Crane, the former chief prosecutor for the Special Court in Sierra Leone; and Michael Newton, former senior advisor to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes.

The Satellite Sentinel Project [SSP] took the images after northern Sudanese forces won control of Abyei last month, following a clash with southern Sudanese forces. They show many areas had been burned.

“The Satellite Sentinel Project really shows how technology is allowing those of us in the international criminal law field to look at actual evidence of war crimes as they are happening or just after they have happened,” said David Crane. Crane now heads Impunity Watch at the Syracuse University School of Law.

Good evidence

The SSP is sponsored by The Enough Project.

“Photograph evidence is always very, very telling,” he said, “both to a jury or a finder of fact. But it also allows us to physically see what has actually taken place. And here in Abyei town, it’s certainly a war crime or crime against humanity. There’s no militarily necessary reason to attack civilians and their towns.”

Crane said just a few years ago, this technology was only available to governments. What’s more, social media now allow average citizens to report on events in a matter of seconds.

The technology was unavailable to Crane while he was investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity related to Sierra Leone’s Civil war. He signed the indictment against former Liberian President Charles Taylor in connection with that conflict.

“You can’t prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but certainly it is important evidence,” he said, “The bad guys just can’t get away with it anymore.”

Little pressure?

The former prosecutor, however, said he doubts the satellite images of Abyei will have much influence on the Khartoum government. President al Bashir has been indicted been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in connection with the conflict in Darfur.

“They’ve had pressure before. This is just another series of events and evidence that show the actual heart of the Sudanese government, the Bashir government, that they really regard life very, very cheaply. Again, another sad chapter in the evolution of international crimes in that part of the world,” said Crane.

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