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Nowhere to Hide: Humanitarian Research Lab Leverages Satellites, Social Media to Document Global Atrocities

Yale Public Health Magazine, Yale Public Health: Fall 2023
by Colin Poitras


One of the biggest challenges facing international human rights investigators is access to timely, verifiable information. Closed borders, travel restrictions, and locked-down communications channels are just a few of the tactics war criminals and others have used to hide atrocities from the rest of the world.

But those traditional obstacles are no longer insurmountable. Innovations in remote sensing analysis and the growing use of social media around the world are making it increasingly difficult for these individuals to hide.

In the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab, researchers are sifting through hundreds of images from commercial satellites and NASA thermal imaging sensors as they investigate potential crimes against humanity and war crimes around the globe. Currently, their sights are set deep inside Ukraine and Sudan, where brutal ongoing conflicts are decimating civilian infrastructure and leaving innocent victims lying in the streets.

Ultimately, the lab’s goal is not only to document atrocities so that those responsible will eventually be held accountable but also to gather enough knowledge about tensions in a region to predict where future violence may occur to help protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance.

“Although we may be here at Yale, in reality, we are inside the Ukrainian cyberspace that is part of this war,” the lab’s Executive Director Nathaniel Raymond told NPR’s Morning Edition in an interview earlier this year. “The running joke among our team is that we go to work in Ukraine every day from New Haven.”

But satellite imagery is just one part of the effort. The lab, and its investigative partners, also analyze countless streams of publicly available open-source information – social media accounts, regional media reports, historical records – to identify leads and corroborate what they see from space.

“Everyone focuses on the satellites, but what we really do is work at the intersection of technology and anthropology,” Raymond said.

Launched by Associate Professor Kaveh Khoshnood, MPH ’89, PhD ’95, in 2021, the Humanitarian Research lab is maintained by YSPH faculty and students who are dedicated to addressing humanitarian crises around the world.

Its mission is not limited to war zones.

When a devastating earthquake rocked Syria and Turkey in February, the lab worked closely with its partners in the region to help them assess the damage to health care facilities.

Two YSPH alumni and mentees of Khoshnood, Ehsan Abualanain and Ahmad Saleh, MPH ’22 (epidemiology/biostatistics), and then-second-year YSPH student Madison Novosel, MPH ’23 (chronic disease epidemiology), also have been helping Syrian colleagues operating from Turkey to accurately document deaths through an NGO they started called MakeDeathsCount.

But it is the lab’s work in Sudan and Ukraine that has made international headlines.

When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin last March for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children (a war crime), camp locations and other detailed evidence collected by the Humanitarian Research Lab were a key part of the underlying affidavit. The lab’s investigative report estimated that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children had been relocated – many under duress - to Russia or Russian-held territories as part of a government-organized network of at least 43 Russian “re-education” and adoption facilities.

Much of the lab’s current work is done through its association with the U.S. Department of State’s Conflict Observatory, an initiative that was launched last May to collect, analyze, document, and preserve evidence of possible war crimes committed by Russia as part of its invasion of Ukraine. Other partners participating in Conflict Observatory operations include the geospatial software company ESRI, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, and PlanetScape Ai.

Since May 2022, the YSPH lab has issued more than 25 detailed reports documenting the destruction of Ukrainian health care facilities, grain silos, and the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station Dam. The lab also documented the existence of an organized filtration system in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast and extrajudicial detentions and forced disappearances, including torture, by Russian actors in occupied areas of Ukraine.

More recently, the lab has been monitoring conditions in Darfur and Western Sudan where rival military forces are battling for control of the region. Through its periodic “situational awareness reports,” the Humanitarian Research Lab has documented widespread destruction in Darfur, Omdurman, Khartoum, and Nyala, as well as other areas. In many cases, the lab’s reports are the only existing documented information on the current status of these communities. In one report, the lab found that Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) targeted 27 communities across Darfur including one city, Sirba, where more than 86% of the city’s buildings are razed.

Ultimately, the lab’s goal is not only to document atrocities so that those responsible will eventually be held accountable but also to gather enough knowledge about tensions in a region to predict where future violence may occur to help protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance.

“The current armed conflict in Sudan has devastated the lives of so many civilians,” said Khoshnood. “Our HRL team is committed to producing scientific evidence that validates the gross violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and supports negotiations between Sudanese armed groups with the hope of leading to a genuine ceasefire and peace agreement.”

The lab’s reports appear to be having an impact. On June 10, just hours before the State Department was scheduled to release a Yale Conflict Observatory report accusing both sides in the Sudan conflict of violating the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect Civilians and of hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid, the battling parties announced a 24-hour ceasefire to allow for the movement of humanitarian aid throughout Sudan.

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