Satellite Companies Join the Hunt For Russian War Crimes

From a story on by Bryan Bender headlined “Satellite companies join the hunt for Russian war crimes”:

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s an unlikely theme here at the largest annual gathering of space industry executives: how to help bring war criminals to justice.

The expanding constellations of commercial spy satellites that have been capturing high-resolution photos and radar images of Russian troop movements are now proving to be a game-changing tool for international authorities and human rights groups who are aggressively working to document Russia’s targeting of civilians in Ukraine.

And companies are stepping up their efforts to help build war crimes cases.

They are cueing their satellites to pinpoint mass graves, bombed-out hospitals and shattered schools. They are helping to identify military units that have targeted civilians. And their real-time data is being used to deploy investigators, such as those from the International Criminal Court and United Nations, to collect more physical evidence or personal testimony from witnesses on the ground in Ukraine.

“There is truth in imagery,” Steve Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost, said in an interview at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium. “We know where the hospitals, schools and other things are and the analytics are showing these are exactly the things being targeted.”

“It is not propaganda from the West,” he added. “The global community is seeing this for what it is. They can show exactly what is happening on the ground.”

President Joe Biden singled out the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha over the weekend as a war crime and highlighted the need to collect evidence that could implicate Russian military or political leaders.

“What’s happening in Bucha is outrageous,” he said.

The White House also said it has other evidence showing Russia violating the laws of war. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. government is working “to provide the information that we have to the relevant institutions and organizations that will put all this together and there needs to be accountability for it.”

The International Criminal Court has an “active investigation” underway into war crimes in Ukraine after referrals from dozens of nations. And on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for a coordinated international effort to collect evidence, citing the wholesale destruction of civilian areas and growing reports of rape and other human rights violations committed by Russian troops.

After the “horrifying images” of what took place in Bucha, Guterres said, “I immediately called for an independent investigation to guarantee effective accountability.”

Many of those probes are being guided by images captured from commercial satellites orbiting the Earth.

One of the leading commercial satellite providers, Maxar Technologies, has been working “24-7 operations on this,” said CEO Dan Jablonsky.

He said the company has “shouldered out” other customers who are waiting for imagery so that Maxar can continue to make the Ukraine crisis a high priority.

And one of those increasing demands is to chronicle the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

“Buildings getting blown up, holes being dug for graves, those kinds of things are being tracked and recorded and documented in a way that we think is very important,” Jablonsky said.

The global network of imaging satellites operated by Maxar and other U.S. and international companies are proving to be “an unblinking, unclassified eye that is not information from the government but it can be used to hold people accountable for behavior,” Butow added.

Stacey Dixon, the deputy director of national intelligence, also revealed at the conference that, at the outset of the Ukraine conflict, the U.S. government encouraged satellite companies to share their imagery far and wide.

“Early on, we also asked a few commercial companies … to rapidly make available imagery like the buildup that was happening around Ukraine’s borders to help shed a light on what Russia was doing,” she said. “This allowed others to independently interpret the images, piecing them together with other information, and tell the world what was about to happen.”

Members of Congress have also urged U.S. spy agencies to declassify intelligence they have collected on alleged Russian war crimes.

But it’s the widespread availability of commercial satellites — that can collect images day or night — that is reshaping how war crimes are being investigated.

While the technology has been used piecemeal in the past to illuminate Chinese human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslims in China, genocide in Sudan and other human catastrophes, its role putting the war in Ukraine under the microscope is seen as revolutionary.

The commercial satellite constellations have grown dramatically in size and capability in recent years, providing higher resolution images and allowing much more frequent coverage over areas of interest. Dozens of companies and universities in the U.S. alone have government licenses to operate “remote sensing” technologies from orbit.

“We’re able to know in real-time,” said Ritwik Gupta, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who is assisting U.S. European Command in Germany. “You want to see human rights violations in Bucha? We can get Maxar tasked and get imagery over that same exact region in a couple of minutes.”

Another company that has been working “around the clock” on the task is Planet Labs, which for years has coordinated with and supported human rights organizations. Now, international war crimes investigators are “spending enormous amounts of time using these tools to try to identify instances of the intentional targeting of civilians,” said Andrew Zolli, its chief impact officer.

Zolli also said what’s different in Ukraine than previous conflicts is that these investigations can now take place in real-time, in large part due to publicly available satellite data that was once the sole purview of secret government spy agencies.

“The satellites will guide the war crimes prosecutors to sites where they will collect ground evidence,” Zolli said. “And the combination of the ground evidence and satellite imagery and other digital sources of evidence will be collected for future prosecutions.”

“Normally, you have these events occur and people are scattered to the winds and it takes years to track them down,” he added. “And then you have faulty memories, and you have to collect more evidence … to more firmly establish the facts of what happened.”

But it also means international authorities don’t have to wait for the shooting to stop to begin their painstaking work.

“The prosecutions may come in the future, but the investigation doesn’t come in the future anymore,” Zolli said. “The investigation comes right now. This is about getting real-time information and deploying war crimes prosecutors in the moment when the conflict is still raging.”

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