The current fighting between North Sudan and South Sudan in the disputed border oil town of Heglig provides a litmus test on the success of actor George Clooney’s, goal of “deterring a return to full-scale civil war” between the two sides. Clooney has even recently met with President Obama to drive home his Sudan cause, Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP).
Despite the full knowledge that Clooney’s high-tech spy satellite was watching from 300 miles up in the sky, apparently it did not stop the Government of Sudan from launching a military campaign in South Sudan, including the aerial bombardment of civilians near Bentium, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity State. Nor did it deter the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a South Sudan military wing, from looting the Sudan military base in the disputed border town of Heglig.
According to the Enough Project’s website, what is important about the Satellite Sentinel Project is how it works to achieve its goals of “deterring and documenting threats to civilians along both sides of the border between North and South Sudan” to prevent a return to full-scale civil war between them. First, the SSP would capture from 300 miles away satellite images of “possible threats to civilians, detect bombed and razed villages, or note other evidence of pending mass violence.” Second, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative analyzes the captured satellites images for reporting (supplemented by information collected from sources on the ground). Third, the Enough Project then sounds the alarm by releasing the findings to the world through the press and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Equipped with all this information, the end-result is that policymakers around the world and all other stakeholders involved would listen and act in favor of intervening to stop a potential massacre of innocent civilians on both sides of the border. In short, the SSP is a case study for making perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses aware that the world is watching them.
But here is what the SSP is not doing: By focusing on a deterrence strategy, the SSP does not address the underlying root causes of the conflict between South and North Sudan. Sudan’s conflict is not just a conflict about who is attacking who, but is rather much more complex, caused by interwoven factors of religion, ethnicity, race, and competition for resources. If anything, the presence of the SSP is in fact encouraging competitive behavior between the two sides by pitting them against each other instead of directing their efforts toward reconciliation. In societies such as Sudan, with a history of deep division and distrust, deterrent approaches and measures do not end conflict, but only provide a temporary hiatus. The truth is that South and North Sudan not only have a long history of living together (sometimes in contradiction and conflict), but they also have more in common than a complete separation as symbolized by this satellite.
The bottom line is that the SSP, with all good intentions, sends a powerful message to perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abusers that the world is watching them, but does not provide a lasting solution to Sudan’s complex conflict.