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Think tank makes high-tech suggestions for human rights movement

The White House should allocate money already in the federal coffers to communications and satellite technologies that defend human rights abroad, according to a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.

Human rights should benefit from the National Science Foundation's funds, said William F. Schulz, senior fellow for human rights policy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of a report recommending the government deploy social networking, satellite mapping and other technologies to combat oppression overseas. NSF received $3 billion in economic stimulus money and its fiscal 2010 budget proposes $7.05 billion, an 8.5 percent increase from fiscal 2009.

The center, from which the administration frequently hires, released specific steps for wiring the human rights movement during a Tuesday discussion in Washington with specialists from various nongovernmental organizations. One of the more controversial recommendations involves publishing parts of a classified Defense Department database of satellite imagery.

Unless policymakers make the mental connection between engineering and humanitarian efforts and dedicate funds as appropriate, Schulz warned, "technology is no more a panacea to human rights than fancy aerobics machines are to weight loss."

Today, high-resolution satellites with a focus of 1 meter or better, are in constant orbit around the Earth and can provide evidence of destroyed villages and mass graves. But only the federal government can request specific images from the most flexible satellites, according to the report.

Nonprofits such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an international professional organization, have created maps that zoom in on war crimes by ordering pictures through the U.S. government. For example, the association overlaid a satellite image of Sri Lanka taken on May 10 with color-coded icons to depict land changes induced by the country's 26-year civil conflict.

Possible craters, marked in orange, provided researchers with the likely trajectory of incoming shells. "Most of the craters pointed toward Sri Lankan army positions," said Susan Wolfinbarger, an AAAS senior program associate for the geospatial technologies and human rights project. Wolfinbarger, who participated in the discussion on Tuesday, said her group turned the graphics over to war crimes investigators.

In an interview after the panel, she said activist groups typically do not have influence over the timing, frequency or content of the images that the U.S. government chooses to capture.

"Human rights organizations require a comprehensive, standardized naming and border database in order to gather satellite imagery of locations of suspected human rights abuses," the report stated. "The U.S. Department of Defense, or DoD, already has an existing system for mapping these markers, but the publicly available DoD database, VNAP-0, is incomplete with large regions uncharted and many regions out-of-date and inaccurate."

The government either should update the public database or release specific portions of its classified, comprehensive system that cover at-risk areas such as Darfur, Burma and the Congo, according to the report.

Schulz acknowledged there could be resistance to the idea at Defense.

"The biggest thing is to strengthen the link between innovations in science and human rights," said Sarah Dreier, a former research assistant at the center and co-author of the report.

The State Department, for example, could launch a Google maps visual that tracks human rights abuses, Dreier said.

The report also recommends allocating funds to expand wireless communication coverage around the world. Activists and individuals in oppressed societies are attempting to use social networking and other new communications, such as mobile text-messaging, to promote free speech, report abuses and coordinate medical care.

"One key way that corporations and the federal government can work together is by creating partnerships to send recycled phones, laptops and software to communities in developing countries," the report stated.

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