To improve the chances of satellite image admissibility in international humanitarian courts, human rights geospatial analysts, satellite technology professionals, and legal experts should work together to develop protocols for analyzing and interpreting satellite imagery. One issue such efforts can address is what types of phenomena related to human rights monitoring are most easily detected with satellite imagery and what features can be confused with them. Ambiguity in satellite images can be an obstacle to the admissibility of and weight given to this potentially life-saving form of evidence. To illustrate this ambiguity, I will use examples from “Using Geospatial Technologies to Support Human Rights Research and Documentation,” a AAAS workshop.1

While monitoring the conflict in Misurata, Libya in 2011, AAAS analysts believed that one satellite image revealed a buildup of tanks on the edge of a street in an area that experienced heavy fighting. The features they saw had the dimensions and color of camouflaged tanks, but the analysts wanted to verify this by other means. Near infrared bands, which show vegetation as bright red, along with other sources of information indicated that what appeared to be tanks were actually trees cut in a rectangular manner. One object in the street that looked like the trees in the original image, but did not appear bright red upon infrared examination, was a tank. This case study demonstrates the importance of using multiple methods of examination and corroborating satellite imagery evidence with other forms of evidence.

The rectangular objects on the side of the road have the dimensions and color of camouflaged tanks

The rectangular objects on the side of the road have the dimensions and color of camouflaged tanks.

The infrared analysis shows that what appear to be tanks are actually trees. The yellow circle indicates a tank.

The infrared analysis shows that what appear to be tanks are actually trees. The yellow circle indicates a tank.

Furthermore, in Syria the AAAS analysts found evidence of what appeared to be shell craters. However, while consulting historical imagery of the area and other information, they discovered that these features actually represented uprooted trees from an orchard. Another image showed the tracks of tractors used to remove the trees.

This image shows what appear to be shell craters.

This image shows what appear to be shell craters.

What appear to be shell craters actually represent uprooted trees. This image shows tracks of tractors used to remove the trees.

What appear to be shell craters actually represent uprooted trees. This image shows tracks of tractors used to remove the trees.

These examples illustrate potential ambiguity in satellite images. Methods such as infrared analysis and historical image comparison can help provide more information and context regarding the features present in satellite images. Documenting such methods and potential sources of ambiguity would be very helpful in creating guidelines for geospatial imagery analysis. Such guidelines may help aid the admissibility of and weight given to satellite images. For example, guidelines concerning geospatial evidence of tanks may include showing the original image with a scale used to indicate the dimensions of a tank and an infrared analysis that does not show a bright red color on the objects representing tanks. Such expert guidelines may improve the success of geospatial evidence in court. Independent geospatial human rights analysts, satellite technology professionals, and legal experts should come together to develop protocols for analyzing and interpreting satellite images. If these protocols are approved by the United Nations, this potentially life-saving technology can be effectively introduced and applied in court.

Sources:

1. Wolfinbarger, Susan, Jonathan Drake, and Eric Ashcroft. “Workshop: Using Geospatial Technologies to Support Human Rights Research and Documentation.” Washington: AAAS, 09/05/2014.