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Grounding the view from nowhere: The role of remote sensing technology in international human rights practice


Satellite remote sensing has begun to play a pivotal role in defining how the world understands emerging crises, and stands at the fulcrum between human rights ideals and international humanitarian obligations. The adoption of a powerful narrative technology by non-traditional actors such as inter and non-governmental organizations raises serious practical and ethical concerns over the use of the “view from nowhere” afforded by orbital sensors. However, the use of such imagery to sway international dialogs has received limited interest in the academic literature. The subsequent gap in our understanding of the impact of technology on advocacy is significant. This dissertation argues that the adoption of RS technology has enhanced the position of INGOs as geo-political actors in their own right, allowing them to directly challenging the state’s traditional monopoly over international narrative creation. At the same time, remote sensing is fundamentally altering how such institutions go about the process of documentation and evaluation. Taking a phenomenological, qualitative approach in order to understand what is happening inside the black box of rights based practice, this dissertation engages directly with the organizations and individuals who analyze, produce, and drive the use of remote sensing in the international human rights community. It explores the development and practice of RS use as applied to emerging human security threats, and examines the resulting ethical and policy concerns at the organizational level, as well as in the larger international context. Ultimately, it explores the tremendous impact remote sensing technology is having on the world of human rights advocacy, and serves to ground the view from nowhere by placing it within the context of its usage by the people and the organizations on the front lines of human rights advocacy in the 21st century.

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