The answer appears to be a little bit of both.
For about 19 years now the Sudan has been the scene for some of the largest bloodshed in our modern day. It has been a conflict largely ignored by many media outlets in favor of more hip and with it war zones, ones which invariably sit closer to US foreign interests. While the death toll in Syria has only recently crawled over 100,000, the Sudanese crisis has been estimated to have seen as many as 200,000 to 400,000 people die. That number has such a wide range because documenting and tallying the long, drawn out crisis is a Herculean challenge, complicated by limited access, day-to-day violence over a massive (now split) country, and the blind eye of those who could fund such efforts.
George Clooney is no such blind eye. The man with the perfectly symmetrical face has been throwing his monetary and celebrity weight behind what is known as the Satellite Sentinel Project, The project, in partnership with folks like Clooney, the Enough Project, and others, maintains a spy satellite some 300 miles in the sky over the Sudanese region, capturing high resolution footage of the situation on the ground in real time. The idea appears to have originally come from Clooney’s own experience in Hollywood, While visiting the Sudan in October of 2010, only months before the South Sudan would declare independence, he and Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast had a deceptively simple thought,
What if we could watch the warlords? Monitor them just like the paparazzi spies on Clooney?
“Why can’t I be a guy with a 400-mile lens, a tourist, taking pictures and sticking them on the Internet?”
A few phone calls and meetings later and they had their own lidless eye in space, ready to observe and report.
The Sudan appears to be an issue close to Clooney’s charismatic heart. He was arrested in 2012 during at a protest attempting to draw attention to the Sudan and the US’s blockade of aid to the country (does this guy ever have a bad photo?). He has revealed that a large amount of the money he puts towards the satellite project comes from the money he receives for Nespresso commercials. As one of the last dying embers of charm in the nation, Clooney exudes a certain kind of charm that he is putting into good use, muscling up the visibility for projects like this and potentially being the one to push Nespresso to develop coffee plantations in the South Sudan, which was once a high quality coffee exporter. Recently the South Sudan has begun to export the product again, after years of thriving only on oil as their main resource commodity. In terms of the satellite, he was not alone in the funding, and was joined by an Avengers-esque group of celebrities from the Not On Our Watch board, including Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Jerry Weintraub (interesting to note that you apparently only need about 750,000 bucks to get access to your own spy satellite, so get saving). The high tech cameras are courtesy of DigitalGlobe, a commercial venture with five earth imaging satellites in orbit. Although some human rights groups have used satellites in the past to mount evidence against war criminals, the Satellite Sentinel Project is the first of its kind to survey an area in real-time to watch for army movements, the destruction of villages, and aerial bombings ordered by Omar Al-Bashir. The importance of the satellite only escalated with the separation of South Sudan from the northern region in 2011, which left a number of middle regions hotly contested between the armies of Al-Bashir and the Sudan Revolutionary Front, in what is now known as the Sudanese Internal Conflict.
A quick video introduction. Warning: There is one really bad shot of some gore.
So far the project has been able to document a number of violent actions by both sides violating the Comprehensions Peace Agreement they signed in 2005. In a document prepared by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the pilot phase of the project was regarded with some success, having predicted and documented the invasion of the Abyei region, the burning of Tajalei, mass graves in Kadguli, and aerial attacks in the Nuba Mountains, all of which are just a few of the atrocities being committed. Recently they’ve been able to discover military build-ups in border regions, allowing them to warn civilians in advance and potentially mitigate bloodshed that would have been much greater without the project. The conflict in the Sudan is an ethnic one, fought being the mostly Arab northern peoples loyal to Al-Bashir and his government, and the Islamic and Christian Africans of the South Sudan who align themselves with the rebel forces. Much of the violence seen in the region now is only a continuation of the same tensions which sparked in the War in Darfur and the Second Sudanese Civil War, all of these part of a larger tapestry of bloodshed which has brought the country to its knees. Clooney, to his credit, is at least pragmatic about how much his project can really do, stating to Parade Magazine,
“The idea is, we’re just going to keep the pressure on. Turning the lights on doesn’t mean anything stops. But it makes it harder, and that’s our job.”
The Satellite Sentinel Project sets an interesting precedent for how a perfect storm of technology, celebrity, money, and a little creative thinking can be used in the geopolitical sphere to increase our awareness of the issues, give aid where one can, and potentially remedying some major problems in the world. As Clooney states, something like observing and documenting a crisis won’t make the bad men go away, but any sort of action on this scale can produce results which can be used in future prosecution and alleviate some of the pain on a day-to-day basis, which is what we often don’t see when it comes to larger humanitarian projects.