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Surveillant Witnessing:
Satellite Imagery and the
Visual Politics of Human Rights
Andrew Herscher
So as to abolish hidden, undetected, unwitnessed suffering
from the world and honestly to deny it, one was in the past
virtually compelled to invent gods and genii of all the heights
and depths, in short something that roams even in secret,
hidden places, sees even in the dark, and will not easily let an
interesting painful spectacle pass unnoticed. For it was with
the aid of such inventions that life then knew how to work the
trick which it has always known how to work, that of justifying
itself, of justifying its evil. Nowadays it might require other
auxiliary inventions.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
But, high above the Nuba mountains, the people of Sudan had
gained a guardian angel of sorts three of them, in fact in the
form of high- powered satellites trained to scope out atrocities
on the ground with a half- meter resolution.
Ian Daly, Can You Spot the Human- Rights Abuses Here?
Wired, March 2013
The world is watching because you are watching.
Satellite Sentinel Project
Public Culture 26:3 doi 10.1215/08992363-2683639
Copyright 2014 by Duke University Press
I have benefted from comments I received on this project at the Institute of Fine Arts, New
York University; the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths College; and the Department
Public Culture
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Let Me Give You a Closer Look
How to witness an emergency an event that would ren-
der mere witnessing an abdication of responsibility? How to observe a no- mans-
land a place where observers would have no place? How to image mass suf-
fering a condition that is, in the last instance, unimaginable? In February 2003,
then United States secretary of state Colin Powell addressed a special session
of the UN Security Council and, at least implicitly, brought such questions to
the fore.
Powell came to the Security Council to press a case against Saddam Hus-
seins Iraq. He accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction, violating
UN resolutions, and threatening global order. In what might have seemed like a
rhetorical ourish, Powell (2003) concluded his presentation with an evocation
of the humanity that Husseins Iraq had been systematically violating: Underly-
ing all that I have said, underlying all the facts and the patterns of behavior that
I have identifed, is Saddam Husseins contempt for the will of this Council, his
contempt for the truth, and, most damning of all, his utter contempt for human
life. Yet Powells reference to human life was not at all incidental; it located the
United States position toward Iraq not merely in terms of the security interests of
the United States or the legal principles of UN resolutions but also in terms of a
humanitarian morality seemingly beyond politics, an inescapable duty to protect
a threatened people living and dying under a despotic regime.
After laying out his claims against Iraq, Powell seemed to imagine the ques-
tions that these claims would provoke in his audience. How do I know that? he
asked. How can I say that? Heir to a deep humanist tradition of visual truth-
telling, Powells answer to these questions came in the form of pictures: request-
ing to let me give you a closer look, Powell offered his audience aerial surveil-
lance imagery. The United States case for a moral response to a humanitarian
emergency, that is, took the form of an exhibition, and the pictures in this exhibi-
of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley. I also benefted from the comments of Public Cul-
tures anonymous reviewers, Amal Fadlalla, Eric Klinenberg, Anooradha Siddiqi, Asif Siddiqi,
Etienne Turpin, and Eyal Weizman. I am greatly indebted to Scott Edwards at Amnesty Interna-
tional, USA, and Susan Wolfnbarger at the American Association for the Advancement of Science
for their extraordinary generosity in answering my questions about their work; the interpretation of
this work in this essay is, of course, my own. Part of this essay extends a portion of my essay From
Target to Witness: Architecture, Satellite Surveillance, Human Rights, published in Architecture
and Violence, edited by Bechir Kenzari (Barcelona: Actar, 2011).
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tion were photographs made from aircraft- mounted cameras and data collected
by satellite- based sensors.
Or so Powell indicated. In fact, Powells images were both more and less than
photographs (see fg. 1). These images included photographs monochromatic,
abstract, and sometimes blurred but the photographs were overlaid with titles,
arrows, captions, dates, and frames. What Powell gave his audience to see and
believe, then, were not immediately apprehensible images but images inscribed
with their prior interpretation. This interpretation, Powell pointed out, was under-
taken by experts; the labor of these experts subtended scientifc knowledge,
advanced technology, and the surveillance state that brought the preceding to bear
upon otherwise inchoate photographic forms.
Many of these forms emerged from the vantage of imaging satellites orbiting
earth. The UN, of course, had teams of weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq,
far closer to the objects they were looking at and interpreting than the satellites
were, but Powell implied that these inspectors failed to disclose the evidence that
satellite imagery did. In his presentation, then, Powell took pains to explain why
the surveillance satellites distant view of conditions in Iraq was superior to the
view of the UNs on- the- ground weapons inspectors. The UNs inspectors, Powell
Figure 1 Aerial
surveillance image
shown during Colin
Powells presentation to
the UN Security Council,
February 5, 2003.
Image courtesy
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argued, were under constant surveillance by an army of Iraqi intelligence opera-
tives; satellites, by contrast, orbited freely, their surveillance itself unsurveilled.
Visual accuracy came not from the proximity of observer and observed but from
the asymmetrical positions of the former and the latter.
Secrets could only be disclosed by a secret gaze. Here epistemology and espio-
nage became as one. Knowledge became exposure of what was hidden: a project
originating from and structured by paranoia as well as reason, or, perhaps more
precisely, reason employed in paranoias service (see Sedgwick 2003). What sat-
ellites discovered in Iraq was precisely what the Bush administration claimed
to most fear. This politics of paranoia, however, was doubly displaced. The frst
displacement was its advancement through state- of- the- art technology, a technol-
ogy that endowed the paranoid gaze with an aura of indisputable objectivity. The
second displacement was its expression in terms of human security, an expression
that posed the object of the paranoid gaze as threatened human rights. These dis-
placements were very effective; they transformed the politics of paranoia into an
apolitical technomorality.
These displacements have also transformed human rights advocacy. In the
same year as Powells UN presentation, human rights nongovernmental organi-
zations (NGOs) began to avail themselves of newly available commercial satel-
lite imagery. Amnesty International (2007), for instance, declared that thanks
to high resolution satellite imagery, human rights advocates can now document
abuses anywhere in the world even in countries that are sealed off from on- the-
ground researchers. A nexus of scientifc societies, philanthropic organizations,
educational institutions, high- tech corporations, and Hollywood celebrities sup-
ported the deployment of satellite imaging in human rights advocacy. Satellites,
according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
(2006a), are allowing non- governmental organizations the ability to detect and
respond to human rights violations as never before. For the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, satellite imagery would allow NGOs to peer behind the
walls of national sovereignty, accelerating a shift in power that is already under
way (Dehqanzada and Florini 2000: 5).
Abuses of human rights, violations of human rights, and even genocide
itself are objects of interpretation and, thus, of politics. These objects are not
simply revealed to vision; their visual form must be identifed and interpreted on
the basis of other evidence. For human rights NGOs, as for the surveillance state,
however, satellite imaging has furnished views that cannot easily be critically
viewed: the capacity to produce and interpret satellite images is as asymmetrical
in human rights as it is in post Cold War geopolitics. While human rights advo-
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cacy has imagined itself to be extended by its use of satellite imaging, then, this
use has placed advocacy in new relationships both to the surveillance state whose
abuses advocacy emerged to contest and to the publics that advocacy emerged to
Satellite imaging and explicit human rights advocacy each developed during
the Cold War the United States launched its frst surveillance satellite, Corona,
in 1960, the year before Amnesty International, the frst international organiza-
tion dedicated specifcally to human rights, was founded. This synchronicity is
not contingent: the threats to national security that were managed by satellite
surveillance in the United States and the Soviet Union were also managed by
threats to human security, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that organizations
like Amnesty were formed to protest as rights abuses (Benenson 1961). With the
advent of human rights satellite imaging, however, human rights advocacy has
begun to merge with a politics of securitization precisely the politics that advo-
cacy emerged to contest in which publics function less as political actors than as
audiences of politics taking place elsewhere, supposedly on their behalf.
Human rights satellite imaging thus involves the development of what I call
surveillant witnessing: a hybrid visual practice that has emerged at the intersec-
tion of satellite surveillance and human rights witnessing. In the following, I will
suggest that this emergence has less to do with a shift in advocacys intentions
or orientations than with its engagement with satellite imaging. In this sense, I
see satellite imaging not only as used by human rights advocates to pursue
their ends but also as a refraction of these ends, separating intention from effect,
policy from practice, and advocacys present from its past. In this process, surveil-
lance states and human rights NGOs have come to collaborate on the production
of geopolitical knowledge and the accumulation of geopolitical power through
the deployment of satellite imagery. In some sense, then, the National Security
Agencys Eyes on Saddam (its report on the United States surveillance of Iraq)
and Amnesty Internationals Eyes on Darfur (its website on genocide in Dar-
fur) are the same eyes the eyes of a satellite- based geo- witness that has been
deputized to discipline human beings in the course of rendering them visually
For the surveillance state, the development of this geo- witness has allowed
a politicized practice of surveillance to be publicly presented as a witnessing of
human rights abuses; for human rights advocates, it has allowed human rights
witnessing to be extended from on- the- ground victims and survivors to extra-
terrestrial surveillance machines. While human rights advocacy is undergoing a
fundamental transformation through its engagement with satellite imagery, then,
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this transformation is not the one that advocacy imagines itself to be undergoing.
What is the human rights abuse visualized by satellite imagery? As I will describe
in what follows, it is an event extracted from everyday experience, placed out of
reach of the human sensorium, and assigned to an automated, corporately owned,
state- regulated witness machine whose visual testimony can only be deciphered
on the basis of advanced technological expertise.
As such, the founding vocation of human rights advocacy to publicly witness
others in pain is now in the process of becoming a public witness of machines,
experts, and institutions performing witness functions. The publics that formed
around imagery of intolerable violence inicted on the body were capable of
being, in the term of Nancy Fraser (1990), strong publics, communities whose
discourse encompassed both opinion formation and decision making. To the
extent that satellite imagery, whether of threats to national security or human
rights, is visible but not legible, the publics that have formed around it are only
capable of constituting themselves as weak publics, able to form political opin-
ions but unable to make political decisions.
Posing human rights satellite imaging as an emerging front in the politics of
securitization, I also seek to reframe the predominant discussion of that imaging,
in human rights advocacy, media, and scholarly contexts alike, which revolves
around the possibility, desirability, or effects of its Panopticism. Can satellites
stop genocide? That this question has even been posed testifes to the disciplin-
ary power that satellite imaging has been endowed with in human rights advocacy
(see Brown 2011). But human rights satellite imagery, I want to suggest, represents
precisely the sort of violence that the Panopticon would render obsolete. These are
images that give visual form to the state of exception a state that increasingly
summons the suspension of sovereignty called the humanitarian intervention,
as well as the humanitarian violence that relies upon the very same satellite
imaging technologies (see Fassin and Pandolf 2010; Weizman 2012).
Human Rights Advocacy, Immediacy, and Mediation
Since its emergence, human rights advocacy has supported its claims and mobi-
lized its audiences by invoking the immediacy of its evidence the status of this
evidence as unmediated, direct, and objective, fully transparent to what it rep-
resents. Reecting larger dynamics, these invocations have involved escalating
investments in technology, along with the state and corporate apparatuses that
technology subtends. In this sense, human rights advocacy has participated in
what William Mazzarella (2006: 500) has termed one of the great structuring
ironies of our age: the tendency for increasingly elaborate systems of mediation
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to be deployed in the pursuit of immediation. On the one hand, this has given
human rights advocacy more powerful instruments to advance its ambitions; on
the other hand, it has placed this advocacy in compromised relationships to the
power structures it imagines itself contesting and in asymmetrical relationships to
the human beings with whom it imagines itself in solidarity.
In its early history, human rights advocacy relied primarily on the testimony
of two sorts of witnesses: victims of purported rights violations and advocates of
those victims. For Amnesty International (1991: 7), reliable information was
thus obtained by scanning offcial sources, sending missions to a country, send-
ing lawyers to observe trials, and by interviewing witnesses. Keyed to Amnes-
tys focus on the unjustly imprisoned (prisoners of conscience), unfair trials
of political prisoners, and ending the death penalty and other forms of unjust
punishment, this context of information was understood to be adequate to discern
truth: the information that Amnesty collected was carefully examined and
cross- checked to establish its veracity (ibid.: 18).
This process presented information in the form of simple, objective facts that
relied, in other words, on the effect of immediation. Thus, as Richard A. Wilson
(1996: 143) has pointed out, the rhetoric of human rights documentation is fun-
damentally realist: The facts in the main text of human rights reports simply
speak for themselves. This realist rhetoric is marked by a focus on the docu-
mentation of seemingly objective information (in early Amnesty reports, for
example, this information included the names of victims, dates and types of vio-
lation, and descriptions of perpetrators); an absence of reference to the process
of fact- checking; reliance on seemingly authorless narrative templates; and an
exclusion of the historical and ideological contexts in which the violation in ques-
tion occurred. As Wilson (ibid.: 150) has observed, in human rights advocacy,
just as in scientifc and legal contexts, epistemological security is underpinned
by transparent facts.
Beginning in the 1980s, the development of a proliferating number of plat-
forms for visual media, most especially in electronic and digitized forms, has ren-
dered visual images increasingly important in human rights advocacy (see Allen
2009; McLagan and McKee 2012). The aesthetics of human rights image produc-
tion has also been realist; as Meg McLagan (2006: 192) has written, Activists
often approach photographs and moving images as transparent mirrors of reality
and conate them with proof. Images not only can prove rights violations but
can also mediate affective relations between the victims of those violations and
global viewing publics, the latter termed the CNN effect after the advent of
televised cable news (see Robinson 2002).
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From the CNN Efect to the Satellite Efect
The effcacy of visualization in human rights advocacy assumes the special
power of images to mobilize spectators and shame perpetrators. In the 1990s,
however, as human rights advocates attempted to exploit this power by visual-
izing humanitarian and human rights catastrophes across the globe, the political
effects of image making became increasingly diffcult to presume. The seeming
nonresponse of viewing publics to scenes of catastrophe yielded the concept com-
passion fatigue; mediated images were posed as distancing viewers from real-
ity rather than bringing them closer to it; and human rights advocates began to
question the very assumption that knowledge and action could be shaped by an
exposure to images (see Keenan 2004).
The link between visual revelation and political action asserted by terms such
as the CNN effect became especially diffcult to assert during catastrophic but
amply mediated violence in Bosnia (see Gow, Paterson, and Preston 1996; Cush-
man and Metrovi 1996; Keenan 2002). After its emergence in human rights
advocacy in the early 2000s, commercial satellite imagery has offered human
rights advocates a new means of revelation, a revitalization of the epistemology
of exposure, and a reinvestment in the political desires accorded the visual rep-
resentation of rights violations. In so doing, satellite imagery has been used to
reanimate rather than problematize links between visual revelation and political
action. The questioning of the CNN effect in the wake of Bosnia, then, has led
not to a sustained critique of that effects assumptions and politics but rather to
its replacement by an as yet unnamed but nevertheless fully activated satellite
The CNN effect is understood to have an impact on the viewing public and its
political representatives, each of which is posed as the destination of an images
agency. The destination of the supposed effect of satellite imagery is both the
viewer and the viewed, the former allowed to observe and the latter compelled to
be observed. The effect of satellite imagery in human rights advocacy, then, has
been to bifurcate advocacy into both an appeal to witnessing publics, albeit in a
passive capacity, and a surveillance of witnessed perpetrators.
Yet satellite images do not represent the objects they depict, at least not in any
straightforward manner; more precisely, satellite images produce those objects,
themselves the artifacts of political, cultural, and historical imagination, as visual
This production is perceived as objective, but, as Lorraine Daston and Peter
Galison (2007) write, objectivity revolves not around fdelity to an unmediated
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world, fully present to experience, but rather to the negation of whatever consti-
tutes subjectivity. Objective knowledge is thus knowledge that bears no trace
of the knower, rather than knowledge that bears the trace of the known world
(ibid.: 17).
Daston and Galison (ibid.: 161) position photography as a technology that
became shaped by and imbued with the larger and more fundamental forces
shaping objectivitys visual forms and functions: Photography did not create this
drive to mechanical objectivity; rather, photography joined this upheaval in the
ethics and epistemology of the image. Photographys automatic procedures were
those keyed to its objectivity, while its procedures that remained unautomatized
were those keyed to subjective factors that rendered its objectivity incomplete.
The satellite image is typically understood as the product of even more autom-
atized procedures than those involved in the production of an image by a pho-
tographer: the imaging satellite is one component of a dispersed machine that
might seem to perform the functions of both camera and photographer. To some
degree, however, automatization is an aesthetic effect that results from the ways
imaging satellite data are processed (Kurgan 2013: 30 34). Commercial satellite
imagery is routinely processed by techniques that, among other things, naturalize
color, remove visual distortions, enhance visual contrast, and warp an image to
orthogonality. In their own terms, the purpose of these techniques is to achieve
as faithful a representation of the earth surface as possible (Eastman 2001: 27).
This faithfulness, however, relies upon and extends a faithfulness imputed to
prior media charged with the task of objective representation. One of these media
is aerial photography and, in particular, the photogrammetric image the image
in which a topographical photograph has been resolved into orthogonality (Dor-
rian 2007; Deriu 2007). Based on and extending the objectivity imputed to the
photogrammetric image, satellite imagery renders the objectivity of prior forms
of photogrammetry incomplete. The objectivity of satellite imagery, that is, is
a result of what is wanted from this imagery (faithful representations of the earth
surface) rather than what this imagery is in a substantive sense. Thus while satel-
lite imaging is usually understood as a powerful technology of seeing, it functions
even more powerfully as a technology of image making.
Satellite Imaging and the Surveillance State
Satellite imaging emerged and developed during the Cold War as a form of sur-
veillance in the United States and the Soviet Union (see Peebles 1997; Day, Logs-
don, and Latell 1998). The work of the surveillance state proceeded in secrecy;
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satellite imaging was a state secret used to disclose state secrets, and so, in both
the United States and the Soviet Union, the products and even the existence of
satellite imaging systems were considered classifed information. The United
States government did not publicly acknowledge Coronas existence until 1978,
and images from Corona were not publicly released until 1995. The Soviet Union
was well informed about US satellite surveillance, as US intelligence institutions
knew (see Gorin 1998); the audience of the US satellite surveillance programs
secrecy was actually the US public. Keeping the program secret from the public
rendered satellite imagery what Elias Canetti (1984 [1960]: 89) called treasure,
a property whose peculiarity lay in the tension between the splendour it should
radiate and the secrecy which is its protection. For the surveillance state, satel-
lite and other aerial imagery was one of the key such treasures; its products were
only revealed in and as spectacles of the highest order, as, for example, in the
Cuban missile crisis, presentations of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and other
episodes when the United States government publicly presented aerial surveil-
lance imagery.
When United States government agencies did publicly release satellite imagery,
this release was ambivalent, with images typically degraded to prevent detection
of surveillance satellite resolution capabilities. Publicly released satellite surveil-
lance images were also typically inscribed with the surveillance states interpreta-
tion of those images. From their initial release, satellite photographs were distinct
from satellite images; in the surveillance states transformation of the former into
the latter for public spectatorship and consumption, photographs were annotated
with visual and textual signs that inscribed the states reading of those photo-
graphs onto visual felds otherwise open to public interpretation. These visual
and textual signs supplemented the photographs they annotated; they added to
these photographs, rendering them meaningful, but they also subtracted from
these photographs, posing them as undecipherable enigmas without annotation.
The satellite image thereby hierarchized vision into vernacular and expert modes,
with only the latter positioned as adequate to parse the satellite photograph. If the
manifest content of a satellite image was a scene of the surveilled world, then its
latent content was the power of the surveillance state to produce this scene in the
frst place.
The tension between the revelation and concealment of satellite surveillance
in the United States was transformed in the 1990s with the relaxation of state
control over satellite imaging. This relaxation occurred in the wake of the Cold
War, when the United States carried out satellite surveillance against adversar-
ies without equivalent surveillance capabilities: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and
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the former Yugoslavia. This relaxation can also be related to a number of other
factors, perhaps the most important being the emergence of a global market for
satellite imagery after the Cold War. This market developed in the early 1990s
when Russia began to sell declassifed imagery from its surveillance satellites
and imagery from the French Satellite Pour lObservation de la Terre (SPOT)
began to be released for sale. By the end of the 1990s, satellite imagery would be
sold not only by government- run military and civilian satellite imaging systems
but also by private corporations. The frst of these corporations were licensed in
the United States; satellite imagery is also produced and sold by corporations
licensed in France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom
(Stoney 2008; Weber and OConnell 2011). The commercialization of satellite
surveillance can also be related to the more general outsourcing of US military
and security operations to the private sector. In 1992 the United States passed leg-
islation to license commercial satellite imaging; in 1993 the frst such license was
given; in 1999 the frst commercial imaging satellite was successfully launched
and the frst commercial satellite image was released (see Parks 2005). By 2003
US- licensed companies were the principal suppliers of satellite imagery to the
United States government.
Satellite Imagery and Human Rights Politics
The satellite imaging of human rights abuses frst became topical when the United
States enmeshed human rights issues in legitimizations of interstate violence, one
instance of the more general recalibration of global politics around humanitarian
and human rights narratives after the Cold War. The United States Department
of State, for example, released before- and- after satellite images of areas near Sre-
brenica, Bosnia, in August 1995 to document mass graves of Muslim refugees
(see Parks 2005: 77 108). Countering claims by the Bosnian Serb forces that
captured Srebrenica and detained the male population of the town, these satellite
images showed mass graves consistent with reports of a massacre of detainees.
A few years later, during the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO) 1999
bombing campaign against Serbia, NATO spokespersons were similarly supplied
with images from US surveillance satellites in order to represent human rights
abuses carried out by the Serb forces that constituted NATOs adversary at the
time (see Herscher 2010: 75 83).
The use of satellite imagery to document alleged human rights abuses in the
former Yugoslavia was selective and restrained, with the few released images
degraded to conceal the visualizing capabilities of surveillance satellites. Between
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the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, however, the United States government
embarked upon an intense and sustained use of satellite images to evidence
claims about a supposedly ongoing condition: Iraqs possession of weapons of
mass destruction (see Richelson 2003). Approximately seventy satellite images
were released and discussed during this time; Powells presentation at the UN
Security Council, in the midst of this campaign, relied upon both its mode of
proof and its framing in terms of human rights.
At the same time, commercially available satellite imagery began to be
included in human rights documentation. Initially, this imagery was deployed as
one form of circumstantial evidence among other forms evidence that could
both corroborate and be corroborated by other evidence. Within a few years,
however, human rights NGOs came to regard and use satellite imaging in more
specifc ways. This specifcity has been manifested in the staging of the satellite
image in three forms: as a type of publicity that interpellates witnesses with a
direct visual relation to human rights abuses; as direct evidence offering proof
of human rights abuses; and as part of a surveillance system that can deter human
rights abuses from occurring. The identifcation of an act of violence as a human
rights abuse is always a political decision and often a publicly contested one. As
publicity, direct evidence, or surveillance, then, human rights satellite imagery
has reifed political names for violence in the course of acting on that violence
visualizing it, verifying it, and preventing it. Satellite imaging has thereby become
part of the political life of contemporary mass violence, rendering this violence at
once visually exposed and politically inaccessible to viewing publics.
Prehistory: The Hidden Gulag and Razing Rafah
In 2003, when newly available commercial satellite imagery began to appear in
human rights documentation, this imagery appeared along with testimony, pho-
tography, forensic evidence, and the reporting of human rights researchers. At
this moment, satellite imagery was not endowed with a different truth- value than
other forms of evidence; rather, it was evidence that augmented those other forms,
showing things that were otherwise described in the words of witnesses or that
were unavailable to the gaze of witnesses.
One of the earliest examples of this use of satellite imagery occurred in the
report The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Koreas Prison Camps (Hawk 2003),
released by the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The
Hidden Gulag documents North Koreas system of forced- labor colonies, concen-
tration camps, prisons, and short- term detention facilities. This documentation
was primarily based on testimonies from North Korean defectors and escapees
who received asylum in South Korea. Following the protocols of earlier human
rights reporting, The Hidden Gulag poses the correspondence between the testi-
mony of former prisoners and the testimony of former guards as probative: Pris-
oners accounts are corroborated and amplifed by accounts from former prison
guards (ibid.: 14). Truth emerges, that is, from the identity between different
forms of circumstantial evidence, in this case the evidence of testimonies, rather
than in the truth- revealing capacity of one particular form of evidence.
The Hidden Gulag also includes satellite images, acquired from Space Imag-
ings QuickBird and DigitalGlobes Ikonos satellites, of seven sites in North
Korea (see fg. 2). These images are annotated with captions that point out the
various features in each facility: prisoners residences, factories, guardhouses,
execution sites, burial sites, and so on. As described in the report, these annota-
tions were obtained by showing satellite images of a facility to a former inmate of
that facility and asking that inmate to label the facilitys various parts. The report
also includes the names of the former inmates who annotated each satellite image.
These inclusions, which connect the annotations on satellite images to testimonies
Figure 2 Kyo- hwa- so
No. 1 Prison Camp,
Kaechon, South Pyongan
Province, North Korea.
Image from Hawk 2003.
Image courtesy United
States Committee for
Human Rights in North
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included elsewhere in the report, allow annotations to be read as part of the text
of testimony, products of the testimonial work of individual witnesses. Satellite
imagery thus functioned as a complement to testimony; it provided visual infor-
mation about the places that testimonies described and was itself informed by
those testimonies. Both image and testimony were accorded equal truth- value; in
the words of the report, Commercial, high- resolution satellite imagery, and the
testimony of North Korean defectors who were exposed to the gulag, are reveal-
ing windows into this closed society (McKinzie 2003: 88).
Satellite images function similarly in the report Razing Rafah (Human Rights
Watch 2004), on the mass demolition of Palestinian houses by Israeli Defense
Forces on the Gaza- Egypt border, especially in and around the refugee camp and
city of Rafah. Documenting violence against architecture in purported excess of
military necessity, Razing Rafah relies on an ensemble of different types of evi-
dence: the testimony of victims of and eyewitnesses to acts of destruction; on- site
investigation of the remains of demolished houses conducted by Human Rights
Watch researchers; statistical data on demolitions assembled by the UN Relief
and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East and a local NGO,
the Palestinian Center for Human Rights; and satellite imagery from QuickBird
and Ikonos satellites.
As in The Hidden Gulag, Razing Rafah uses satellite imagery to complement
other forms of evidence. This complementary function may have been shaped not
only by protocols of evidence but also by the particular form of satellite imagery
of Israel and Palestine; while QuickBird and Ikonos were capable of providing
images at one- meter resolution or higher, according to the Kyl- Bingaman Amend-
ment to the 1997 US Defense Authorization Act, US corporations could only
release satellite imagery of Israel and Palestine at two- meter resolution or lower.
Thus Razing Rafah deployed satellite images of Gaza from before and after 2000
to show, for example, how a space twenty to forty meters wide along the Gaza
border had been expanded into a space two hundred to three hundred meters wide
(see fg. 3). Based on other evidence, the report interpreted this as the expansion of
a patrol corridor into a buffer zone through the mass destruction of Palestin-
ian homes (ibid.: 41).
Figure 3 Bufer zone,
Gaza- Egypt, 2000 2004.
Image from Human
Rights Watch 2004.
Image courtesy Human
Rights Watch
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State- Sponsored Human Rights Advocacy
A United States government agency also initiated a human rights campaign that
used satellite imagery in 2004, but here this imagery functioned quite differ-
ently. Using an evidentiary template constructed to fabricate surveillance images
of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, the United States Agency for International Devel-
opment (USAID) and the Department of States Humanitarian Information Unit
(HIU) employed commercial imagery from QuickBird and Ikonos satellites to
publicize the Darfur crisis (see fg. 4). In this campaign, that is, destroyed villages
in Darfur served as subject matter for the presentation of a commodity as evidence
of humanitarian emergency. This project thus assayed the extension of state sur-
veillance on the basis of commercialized satellite imaging systems.
USAID and HIU (2004) released their frst satellite image of destroyed vil-
lages in Darfur on June 21, 2004. This was a few days before resolutions were
introduced in the United States Senate and House of Representatives declaring
that the political violence in Darfur was genocide a temporal conjunction that
suggests the political conjunction of the knowledge provided by satellite imagery
and the power that this knowledge both avails itself of and makes available. By
September 2004, USAID and HIU were releasing monthly maps of damaged and
destroyed villages in Darfur compiled on the basis of satellite images, as they
continued to do until 2011.
USAID and HIU staged satellite images not as circumstantial evidence, to
be corroborated on the basis of other evidence, but as visual facts evidence
that was self- evident. Thus Andrew Natsios, administrator of USAID and spe-
cial coordinator for the International Disaster Assistance program and special
humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, could comment on what satellite images of
Darfur immediately revealed to sight: In a functional village you see trees . . .
and the houses will all have cone- shaped roofs made of grass. And you can see . . .
goats, cows, dogs and youll see people walking around, whereas in destroyed
villages you can see the walls, which means the roofs have been burned down
or destroyed, and you wont see any animals, any people, or any trees because
theyve been all burned (quoted in Lederer 2004). This staging of the satellite
image as an immediate representation of reality was the staging undertaken by
the surveillance state. In the representation of the Darfur crisis, that is, the sur-
veillance states documentation of threats to its security crossed over to the docu-
mentation of humanitarian catastrophe.
On October 20, 2004, the AAAS sponsored a public discussion at its offce in
Washington, DC, titled Darfur, Sudan: The Role of Science in a Humanitarian
Crisis. The announcement of the discussion described how it will highlight the
special contributions of science, particularly the role that remote sensing (satellite
imaging, ground penetrating radar, and aerial photography) can play in identify-
ing human rights violations and humanitarian crises (AAAS 2004). This discus-
sion foregrounded the use of satellite imagery of Darfur by USAID and HIU;
David Springer, a geospatial analyst at HIU, gave a presentation on how the unit
was using satellite imagery to document violence in Chad and Sudan, and Natsios
delivered the keynote address.
In response to this discussion, Lars Bromley, a geographer working on geo-
information and geospatial analysis at AAAS, developed a project to explore the
use of satellite imagery in human rights advocacy (see Timmer 2008). According
to Bromley, he was inspired by USAID/HIUs recruitment of commercially avail-
able satellite imagery to expose the crisis in Darfur: The notable thing about
Figure 4 Destroyed
Village near Darurja,
Darfur, Sudan,
June 21, 2004. Image
by Humanitarian
Information Unit,
United States
Department of State.
Satellite image courtesy
Space Imaging, Inc.
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that product was that while undoubtedly classifed imagery was used to create it,
the public version cited only commercial satellite imagery (quoted in ibid.). With
initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Science and Human Rights
Program of the AAAS initiated the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights
Project in 2006, with Bromley as director.
Closed Territories, Open Skies
Human rights satellite imaging takes place within a geography of closed territo-
ries and open skies the geography of a world in which repressive regimes can
prevent reporting of any human rights abuse and surveillance satellites can report
freely on every such abuse. Thus, in the words of Larry Cox, then executive direc-
tor of Amnesty International USA: What this satellite technology does, it makes
it possible to break down those walls of secrecy. Not only to get information, but
to get information in a way thats irrefutable (quoted in Mejia 2007). The release
of satellite imagery of sites in repressive states like Burma and North Korea has
thereby occasioned vivid descriptions of a geography of terrestrial secrecy and a
technology of extraterrestrial exposure. Burma is a black hole . . . its totally off
limits, asserted Jeremy Woodrum from the U.S. Campaign for Burma (quoted
in Spotts 2006), setting up the expanded visual feld made possible by satellite
imagery. While the junta can control the street, the monasteries and even the
Web, they cant control the sky, the author of an article on human rights satellite
imaging claimed (Walsh 2007). In the case of North Korea, a human rights advo-
cate analogously argued that satellite images . . . will be used to understand and
expose the human rights and humanitarian situation in this still- closed society,
formerly known as the Hermit Kingdom (McKinzie 2003: 88).
The binary opposition that underlies such accounts closed territory / open sky
speaks to what Edward Said (1978) called an imaginative geography. In human
rights advocacy, this is a geography in which the satellite gaze makes a place for
itself by negating the gaze of on- the- ground witnesses the same geography, of
course, that underlay satellite surveillance from the Cold War through the Iraq
War. On one side, this geography ignores the local and sometimes transnational
or international human rights organizations whose reports provide the basis for
satellite examination in the frst place. These reports evince the human rights
issues that satellite imagery is recruited to corroborate. Satellite images them-
selves, then, do not reveal or expose secret spaces: they revisualize a prior rev-
elation. The secrecy that the satellite image dispels is therefore only partial or
fragmented its a secrecy that exists for certain publics and not for others.
On the other side, this geography ignores the status of satellite imagery as at
once corporate property and the subject of a dense constellation of national laws
and policies. In the United States, the government has attempted to maintain con-
trol of commercial satellite imagery by reserving a right to shutter control, or
to restrict imagery, in order to protect national security or foreign policy inter-
ests; by instituting various time restrictions determining the release of imagery;
by denying commercial licenses for certain sorts of high- resolution imagery; and
by maintaining the right to censorship by contract, or the purchase of all output
from a satellite for a specifed period of time (Campbell 2008: 23). A geography
of closed territories and open skies thus denies both the openings to repressive
states made by on- the- ground human rights advocates and the closures of the sky
structured by corporate practice and national law and policy. Both denials serve
to stage the surveillance witnessing conducted by satellite imaging systems as a
privileged view on human rights abuses, providing a monopoly on the discursive
construction of the human rights abuse to those human rights organizations with
access to satellite imagery.
Satellite Imagery as Proof: The Human Rights Observation System
In its early years, the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project staged
satellite imagery as a new and unprecedented form of proof of human rights
abuses. While NGOs previously used satellite images in their reporting as cor-
roborative evidence, these images were posed by the Geospatial Technologies and
Human Rights Project as direct evidence that verifed testimonies solicited from
eyewitnesses and other on- the- ground sources: Geospatial technologies can
broaden the ability of non- governmental organizations to rapidly gather, analyze,
and disseminate authoritative information, especially during times of crisis. They
can also provide compelling, visual proof to corroborate on- the- ground report-
ing of conicts and natural disasters affecting human rights (AAAS 2006a).
Here the difference between proof and corroboration is both gestured toward
and blurred. In another context, however, Bromley offered the following formula-
tion, which succinctly separates proving and corroborating: We take what the
NGOs already know and prove it (quoted in Katayama 2007). In this context,
human rights claims would exist as unproven and necessary to corroborate until
they were verifed by the satellites mechanized witnessing. A proof function
in human rights reporting became exclusive to satellite imaging, along with other
forms of technomoral witnessing.
The introduction to the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project
places its origin in the USAID/HIU satellite imaging of Darfur. Used in con-
junction with classifed sources, analyses of the imagery led to confrmation of
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reports of widespread destruction of villages, livestock, and crops as part of an
ethnic cleansing campaign (AAAS 2006a). This confrmation, the introduc-
tion pointed out, was made by evidence acquired from commercially available
data. The Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project thereby attempted
to institutionalize the use of these data satellite imagery in human rights
advocacy. This institutionalization would yield what the project termed a human
rights observation system a system to monitor, protest, and prosecute human
rights abuses across the globe.
One of the frst and largest studies carried out by the Geospatial Technolo-
gies and Human Rights Project, prepared in collaboration with Amnesty Interna-
tional, focused on Darfur. According to Lars Bromley, lead author of the study,
the satellite image provides you another way to peek over the walls the walls
that ostensibly made Darfur diffcult or impossible to access directly (quoted in
Alfano 2007). At the time of the report, there were thirteen UN agencies in Dar-
fur, eighty- one NGOs in Darfur, and an estimated 12,500 aid workers in Darfur
(Annan 2005: 10). A claim about the diffculty of accessing Darfur, that is, allowed
satellite imagery to function as a view onto an otherwise inaccessible space.
For the AAAS, the peek over Darfurs rhetorically constructed walls yielded
before and after satellite images of twenty- eight villages where attacks had
been reported by the UN Mission in Sudan or Sudan- based NGOs. Following a
visualization technique that had emerged in aerial reconnaissance, a pair of sat-
ellite images was collected for each village, one showing the village before the
attack in question and one showing it after. The archiving of imaging satellite
data, which are referenced both by place (the area of the earths surface the data
correspond to) and by time (the moment the data were collected), allows satellite
images to be generated from data collected months or years earlier. Thus in the
image pairs of villages in Darfur, the before images are actually generated after
the after images to provide a baseline for comparison. This dual temporality is
registered in the discrepancies between the dates of the before images, which are
the dates when image data were collected, and the copyright dates of those images,
which are the dates when these data were purchased and converted into visual
form. For example, in the case of the village of Jonjona (see fg. 5), the before
image is dated December 7, 2004, while the image was copyrighted in 2007.
Staged as objective information, the images are correspondingly focused on
the presence and absence of buildings. Functioning as a baseline, the before
images were thereby described as images of a complete village, an undam-
aged village, or an intact village: locations unaffected by violence. After
images, by contrast, showed fewer buildings than before images. In the case of
Figure 5 Damage
to Village of Jonjona,
South Darfur, Sudan:
Before image. [This]
image, taken December 7,
2004, shows a complete
village totaling 426
structures. Damage to
the Village of Jonjona,
South Darfur, Sudan:
After image. [This]
image, from February
23, 2007, indicates that
46 structures were
destroyed that were
present in the before
imagery. From AAAS,
Science and Human
Rights Program, High-
Resolution Satellite
Imagery and the Conict
in Chad and Sudan,
2006b. Analysis provided
by AAAS; satellite images
DigitalGlobe, Inc., 2007
Public Culture
Jonjona, the caption points out that 46 structures present in the 2004 image are
absent in the 2007 image. While the acquired satellite images showed twenty- fve
to forty- nine square kilometers of terrain, these images were closely cropped so
that they primarily show the buildings in question. The color and tone of some of
the images was also altered so that before and after images visually conform
to one another and possibly to emphasize architectural elements under question
as well. These visual processes yield images presented as fully available to visual
In the corresponding report (AAAS 2006b), the missing buildings in each after
image are described as effects of attacks on the villages in question. These nar-
ratives describe those attacks in terms of the seemingly objective names of their
perpetrators (Arab Habaniya group, Sudanese government, Janjaweed or Jan-
jawid, Arab militias); their targets (the village and its occupants); their effects
(complete destruction, roughly half, or approximately 1,171 out of 2,264 struc-
tures burned and/or destroyed, 104 out of 576 total structures destroyed); and
sometimes the date and rationale of the attacks. In the case, again, of Jonjona (see
fg. 5), the absence of forty- six structures in the after image is ascribed to a reported
attack on the village by government militia members at the end of May 2006.
The report places these attacks within a larger narrative that poses them as
instances of a systematic violence [that] results in genocide. Why genocide? The
report does not parse this question. If a secret is not what is unknown but what is
unstated, then the reasons for invoking genocide as a cover term are secret. That
is, here satellite imagery participates in a redistribution of secrecy, with the visual
revelation of destroyed villages correlated to a discursive concealment of how that
destruction constitutes the genocide it is taken as evidence of. Indeed, all the evi-
dence produced from satellite imagery of Darfur could be read as corroborating
counterinsurgency, ethnic conict, or any of the other categorizations that have
emerged to name the violence in Darfur: that genocide is the appropriate category
for this violence is simply assumed.
Moreover, the visual revelation of attacks against villages in Darfur corre-
lates to a neglect of any violence prior to those attacks and, more profoundly, to
a sense of history as a sequence of discrete events rather than as a structure or
process out of which events both emerge and submerge. Amal Fadlalla (2007,
2008) has described how the crisis in Darfur developed from a long colonial and
post colonial history of policies and actions that intensifed class and ethnic divi-
sions, displaced populations, and heightened the vulnerability of many communi-
ties to impoverishment, disease, and violence. These effects became even more
pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s with Sudans subjection to International Mon-
etary Fund sponsored structural adjustment programs and the implementation of
US and European sanctions against Sudan in the wake of the frst Gulf War.
To describe villages in Darfur in the 2000s as complete, undamaged, or
intact, then, is to write the history of recent violence in Darfur as a history
erupting in a tranquil desert vacuum. This writing is politically effcacious, as it
has shaped interpretation of satellite imagery of Darfur in accordance with US
and European readings of the Darfur crisis. The application for President Omar
al- Bashirs arrest warrant, presented to the International Criminal Court in July
2008, thus used satellite imagery of destroyed villages collected by the Geospatial
Technologies and Human Rights Project as part of the evidence documenting al-
Bashirs crimes against humanity (see Nez 2012).
The destination of the report on Darfur prepared by the Geospatial Technolo-
gies and Human Rights Project the International Criminal Court is exem-
plary. It testifes to the way in which the framing of human rights satellite imagery
as proof both invokes and is invoked by a new infrastructure of legal institutions
dedicated to the protection of human rights (see Weizman 2012). Enmeshed in
this infrastructure, the human rights NGO also recalibrates its relation to the pub-
lics it formerly addressed and attempted to activate. As well as mobilizing public
witness of human rights abuse, the human rights NGO can now address institu-
tional witnesses such as the International Criminal Court. While these addressees
of advocacy the one public and the other institutional are not mutually exclu-
sive alternatives, the emergence of the latter has shifted advocacy attention away
from the former. This shift can be associated not only with the post Cold War
institutionalization of human rights politics that has often been registered but also
with human rights advocacys engagement with a new visual practice.
Satellite Imagery as Publicity: Eyes on Darfur
Perhaps in response to the more- or- less closed circuits in which satellite imagery
circulated in the work of the AAAS, Amnesty International (2007) presented
some of the imagery from the AAAS report on Darfur on a website titled Eyes
on Darfur. Here, however, satellite imagery is staged not as legal proof so much
as vivid publicity; to see the proof with your own eyes (Amnesty International
2007a), as the site claims to make possible, is to direct satellite imagery not to
institutionalized legal forums but to public audiences instead. Text on the site
therefore addresses the world as a world of public spectators: See for yourself.
Explore the satellite evidence and read detailed accounts of each destroyed vil-
lage to see with your own eyes what is happening in Darfur (Amnesty Interna-
Public Culture
tional 2007b). What is happening is described as some of the worst human rights
abuses imaginable, including systematic and widespread murder, rape, abduction,
and forced displacement (Amnesty International 2007c). Using satellite imagery,
then, Eyes on Darfur claims to render these abuses visible through their putatively
architectural traces.
Eyes on Darfur was launched on June 6, 2007, less than two months after a
highly publicized website titled Crisis in Darfur was launched. Crisis in Darfur,
the product of a collaboration between the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum and the Google Corporation, also used satellite imagery to publicize
violence in Darfur. As Lisa Parks (2009) has pointed out, Crisis in Darfur mobi-
lizes this imagery more as an interface to on- the- ground photographic views than
as views to be scrutinized in their own right. In contrast, Eyes on Darfur poses
satellite imagery itself as a compelling object of visual contemplation. As in the
AAAS reports, Eyes on Darfur presents this imagery in the guise of before- and-
after views of attacked villages. A viewers sense of discovery is provoked by
allowing viewers on the website to zoom in and out of satellite views and to toggle
between before and after views. Zooming and toggling are procedures that
viewers encounter in many other places on the web, particularly in connection
with shopping. Ernst Blochs description of realism as a fetish[ism] of so- called
facts (1986 [1959]: 222), which, as Allan Feldman (1994: 406) argues, implicitly
links information consumption to consumer satisfaction, here comes to incorpo-
rate the human rights abuse.
But what is most consequential in the context of human rights advocacy is how
Eyes on Darfur constructs the human rights abuse not only as something to view
but also as something to be viewed: an image of and for visual consumption. It
does this by staging viewing not as passive contemplation but as active monitor-
ing. By looking at the sites satellite imagery, it is claimed, people around
the world . . . [can] literally watch over and protect twelve intact, but highly
vulnerable, villages (Amnesty International 2007d). In prior forms of human
rights advocacy, the public viewing of images was understood to motivate public
action; with Eyes on Darfur, the public viewing of satellite images is posed as
public action itself.
This action that of watching over threatened villages by looking at satel-
lite imagery is action without acting. It requires nothing of the viewer except
his or her presence in front of imagery, and it allows for nothing from that viewer
except such presence. It interpellates a spectator who can only be that. As such, it
makes what Jacques Rancire (2009) has called the emancipation of the spectator
impossible. For Rancire, this emancipation of the spectator lies not in moving
from a supposedly passive position of spectatorship to a position of action but in
the practice of spectatorship itself as a form of active interpretation, translation,
and appropriation. The spectator of Eyes on Darfur, however, is not offered a pos-
sibility to inquire into or reect upon the Darfur crisis through an investigation of
satellite imagery but rather is told that simply looking at that imagery constitutes
an intervention into that crisis.
The Satellite Panopticon: The Satellite Sentinel Project
In its attempt to endow the viewing of satellite imagery with a monitoring effect,
Eyes on Darfur anticipates an extraterrestrial human rights Panopticon: a sur-
veillance system that would deter human rights abuses by rendering them poten-
tially visible from imaging satellites. The Satellite Sentinel Project, launched in
December 2010 by the Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initia-
tive, explicitly attempts to institute such a Panopticon over the contested border
between North and South Sudan. The project thus claims to combine satellite
imagery analysis and feld reports with Googles Map Maker technology to deter
the resumption of war between North and South Sudan and head off humani-
tarian disasters before they occur (Satellite Sentinel Project 2010). The projects
self- description also makes much of George Clooneys involvement in founding
and funding what Clooney has termed the antigenocide paparazzi (quoted in
Benjamin 2010). In what might seem to be a classic Lacanian mirror relation,
a publicity- averse celebrity disavows this aversion and imagines it in the form
of specular others, here the Sudanese military and paramilitary forces that are
endowed with a similar aversion to public exposure, in this case produced by
satellite imaging.
In the Satellite Sentinel Project, satellite imagery of the border area between
North and South Sudan is purchased and examined so that evidence of pend-
ing mass violence (Satellite Sentinel Project 2010) can be discovered and made
public, a publication that is intended to keep that pending violence from being
actualized (see fg. 6). Surveillance is simulated by two visual techniques. One is
repeated seeing: viewing a sight multiple times so as to simulate constant moni-
toring. Repeated seeing is displayed in images that compare multiple views that
document change over time. These sequences are implied to be ongoing: not just
comparisons of before- and- after images but image sequences that are infnitely
extendable into the future, suggesting that future changes will themselves be
docu mented. Another surveillance effect emerges from reported seeing: view-
ing a sight and then quickly publicizing that viewing. Here the project compresses
Public Culture
the time between the satellite imaging of a site and the issuing of a report on that
imaging to a few days, a duration that licenses the preceding to be framed as tak-
ing place in real time.
Repeated seeing and reported seeing each simulate surveillance. In the Satel-
lite Sentinel Project, then, seeing yields not only the belief of the spectator but
also the disciplining of the object of vision. In so doing, satellite imaging defends
against violence that is assumed to require invisibility to be inicted the
assumption of a violence inicted by perpetrators who would be deterred by the
possible exposure of their actions to imaging satellites. Here the agency of satel-
lite imagery is extended from the past to the future: satellite imagery is staged not
only as documentary evidence of past human rights abuses but also as predictive
evidence of future abuses whose very visualization would forestall them.
The surveillance function claimed by the Satellite Sentinel Project, however,
would not require the world attention (Satellite Sentinel Project 2010) invoked
in the projects self- description. As Michel Foucault (1978) described with refer-
Figure 6 Alleged Mass
Graves Site near Khalil
Yagoup Garden, Kadugli,
South Kordofan, Sudan.
From Satellite Sentinel
Project 2011. Satellite
images DigitalGlobe,
Inc., 2011
ence to Jeremy Benthams Panopticon, a surveillance system is a machine for cre-
ating and sustaining a power relation independent of who or what sees. Thus the
Satellite Sentinel Projects capacity to institute a Panopticon over Sudan would
rest on the visibility of the satellite images it publicizes not to a global audience
of human rights advocates but rather to purported violators of human rights in
Sudan. Moreover, for advocates to see these satellite images is less to see what
they depict on the level of content than to see the machine of depiction itself: a
machine given to the public as an object of contemplation rather than a platform
for political participation.
A Space without Politics
The Satellite Sentinel Project literalizes the Panoptical function that has been
attributed to the global human rights movement more generally (see Steele and
Amoureux 2006). This Panopticon would assume and assert a universal system of
discipline across the globe. But which acts of violence would count as violations
of human rights and necessary to deter? Which acts of violence would count as
defenses of human rights and necessary to inict? And who or what would have
the right to advance answers to such questions? In the world of the human rights
Panopticon, all such questions would be decided in advance, with these decisions
immune from subsequent negotiation or dispute. The world of the human rights
Panopticon is a world where a single, fxed moral order summons a universal
assent through the deployment of advanced technology. This is a world domi-
nated by powers that pose themselves as speaking for humanity itself the world
of politics posing in the guise of apolitical morality that was criticized by Carl
Schmitt in The Concept of the Political (1996 [1932]).
In the current global order, violence inicted in the name of human rights can
look similar or identical to violence whose iniction is categorized as a human
rights abuse. Mahmood Mamdani (2009) has argued precisely this in relation to
Iraq and Darfur that the recent violence in both places has resulted in approxi-
mately the same number of casualties, inicted by the same sort of military- linked
paramilitary groups, against the same sort of collectively defned communities.
That Iraq has invited the label counterinsurgency and Darfur genocide, then,
has to do much less with on- the- ground conditions than with factors such as a
displacement of the United States responsibility for the horrifc postwar violence
in Iraq.
The Panoptic deterrence of human rights abuses could look like the support
or even iniction of such abuses from other perspectives. What the satellite- based
Public Culture
human rights Panopticon would deter, in other words, is less human rights abuses
than politics itself. What seems crucial, therefore, is looking politically at satellite
imagery: not looking to verify a political event or situation but looking as itself
a political act, an opening to a new distribution of power and knowledge. This
means not looking away from satellite imagery toward other imagery but regard-
ing the satellite image with ever more scrutiny.
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Andrew Herscher is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, teaching
in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Department of Slavic
Languages and Literatures, and Department of Art History. He is the author of Violence
Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conict (2010) and The Unreal Estate Guide
to Detroit (2012).