If you’re anything like George Clooney, you lounge around on your yacht off the coast of Italy thinking up ways to save Africa.
What ideas does a respected Africanist like Clooney come up with, you ask? More Bono, perhaps? More used sneakers? More of Bono’s used sneakers?
Nay, it is the twinkle of sunlight off a photographer’s telephoto lens that holds the answer.
Clooney is launching an “anti-genocide paparazzi” service. Using commercial satellites in low-earth orbit, Clooney’s project will monitor the border between northern and southern Sudan for any signs of impending civil war, mass atrocities, or genocide. You know, the usual. Compared to what photos of a Miley Cyrus nipple slip will cost you, atrocity porn is downright cheap at $70,000 per shot.
Clooney has big plans for this do-gooder paparazzi. After saving southern Sudan, he envisions it being used in other hotspots around the world.
“This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,’” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”
Unfortunately for Clooney, the science doesn’t really back him up.
The best images from these satellites display about 8 sq. in. (50 sq cm) of the ground in each pixel on a computer screen. That is not enough granularity to read a car’s license plate or ID a person, but analysts can tell the difference between cars and trucks and track the movements of troops or horses.
Indeed, these satellites won’t catch any slipped nipples or baby bumps. In an interview with Clooney about the satellite project, Jake Tapper asked, “Will the world watching make a difference?”
The world only watches when royals or Justin Bieber are involved.
In 2007, Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched “Eyes on Darfur,” a satellite project that monitored developments on the ground in Darfur. As you’ll recall, mere months later, Darfur was saved after millions of people updated their Facebook statuses with a link to blurry photos of sand.
The main idea behind Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project is, “If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.” It’s about accountability.
Accountability for human rights violations are important, but satellites are not the best way to monitor which actors are at fault. Even Anonymous NGO security reports about drunken grenade brawls are more exciting than eight inches of sand turned into a pixel. Clooney getting into a fistfight in Juba is far more likely to make headlines at TMZ than his satellites capturing troop movements around Abyei.
As an advocacy tool to rally public opinion, satellites are about as useful as a non-combat littoral combat ship. As a deterrent to committing atrocities, satellites are about as useful as the threat of an ICC indictment.
If Clooney really wants to identify who is doing what and when—and if he wants to continue dredging up ideas from the annals of genocide prevention projects past—he should consider investing in some UAVs. What could go wrong?
At the very least, whatever hot genocidaire-on-cattle action the Clooney UAVs capture on video is sure to raise alarms among the activist community. Even if those activists are just PETA. Beggars can’t be choosers.