Documenting violations of international humanitarian law from space: a critical review of geospatial analysis of satellite imagery during armed conflicts in Gaza (2009), Georgia (2008) and Sri Lanka (2009)

Since the launch of the first commercial very high resolution satellite sensor in 1999 there has been a growing awareness and application of space technology for the remote identification of potential violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. As examined in the three cases of armed conflict in Gaza, Georgia, and Sri Lanka, analysis of satellite imagery was able to provide investigators with independent, verifiable, and compelling evidence of serious violations of international humanitarian law. Also examined are the important limitations to such imagerybased analysis, including the larger technical, analytical, and political challenges facing the humanitarian and human rights community for conducting satellite-based analysis in the future.

Keywords: satellite imagery, armed conflict, international humanitarian law, IHL, Gaza, Georgia, Sri Lanka, space technology, human rights, geospatial, GEOINT, human rights Watch, HRW, Richard Goldstone, UNOSAT, South Ossetia, damage assessment, Tamil Tigers, LTTE, Goldstone Report, Israel, IDF, United Nations, UN, UNITAR, IMINT

About the author

Joshua Lyons
Satellite imagery analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Josh Lyons is the satellite imagery analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Before joining HRW, he was the principal analyst of the UN’s operational satellite applications programme (UNOSAT). Mr Lyons has master’s degrees in international relations from the London School of Economics (LSE), and geographic information science from University College London (UCL).