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Early Warning and Global Information Systems

November 18, 2009

The Task Force for Genocide Prevention defines the early warning as “assessing risks and triggering action,” which is not to be confused with the notion of sounding an alarm. Their recommendation is to create a “watch list” based on the risk factors that will serve as a basis for pinpointing the states in need of further analysis. This early warning does not mean a prediction of genocide. Rather, it promotes preventive action.

Other distinguished authors, such as Mr. Mathew Levinger, in his article on Geographical Information Systems Technology as a Tool for Genocide Prevention: The Case of Darfur, published in Space and Polity, writes on the topic of early warning and views technology as one of the possible avenues for early warning. He posits that the value of the Geographic Information System (GIS), such as Google Earth may not be for the public advocacy; rather its value is for policy practitioners by “stimulating more effective responses to emerging threats of genocide.”

In this article, Mr. Levinger uses a metaphor of Panopticon, the ideally built prison that needs only one guard to monitor all the inmates. However, who is the guard in the world of state sovereignty? The local hegemons may not have national interest in intervention, besides they would need to determine who wins. (This brings us to entirely separate discussions of negative peace and structural violence, which is not the topic of this blog.) The U.N. or a local organization such as the African Union that are under-financed. The U.N. intervention is also at the mercy of the Security Council’s  veto. The NATO responsibility is restricted to Europe and its interests are no different from the U.S. interest. In my opinion, it is certainly beneficial to have real- time electronic conflict maps in forming public opinion and advocacy; but Google Earth may not be the best tool for an early genocide warning application. Additionally, by itself, GIS is not likely to spur other state’s intervention once the villages in the offending state are burning.

Patrick Meier gives a critique of Mr. Levinger’s article by bringing up three points: Google Earth layer is not updated, the Museum has produced only Google Earth layer for every corner of Earth, and a correlation between virtual globes and a Global Panopticon effect is difficult to prove. Clearly, all of his remarks are to the point and relevant.

So, maybe Google Earth may not be the best tool for early genocide warning as there are other technology applications, such as the websites of Amnesty International and Ushahidi  that provides real-time witness updates that are serving as excellent awareness and publicizing tools. They serve in opposition to the offending governments who, naturally, want to keep abuses hidden from the international public view.

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