Measuring Human Rights Impacts with Geospatial Information

Today, human rights investigators have unprecedented access to information. Access to government archives, corporate information and a range of data on people around the world abound. In recent years, human rights activists have also turned to satellite imagery as another means for collecting evidence of human rights issues. With all of this available information, the challenge is to understand what all of this means to both assessors and the people impacted by business activity.

At a recent conference hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC several speakers touched on geospatial information as a source of data for identifying human rights problems. Commonly thought of as satellite mapping, geographic information systems (GIS) is a technology that has been in active use since the 1970s. As the technology for gathering geospatial information has improved, the data gathered has become readily available to the public and many new applications using GIS have been developed.

In the field of human rights, the use of GIS data has been used for identifying mass grave sites, the burning and destruction of communities, gas flaring and the after effects of aerial bombardment. In each of these cases, the scope of destruction lends itself to relatively easy identification of human harm from above, often by comparing views of a specific location over time.

In the field of business and human rights, the use of geospatial data and GIS may seem less obvious. When assessing the human rights impacts of business activities, GIS can provide valuable data on the physical impacts arising out of “footprint” projects, that is, physical business operations that can transform a community. For example, prior to the start of an open pit mining operation, an understanding of the physical environment viewed from above serves as a baseline for identifying changes brought about by the physical destruction of a given area.

For example, in 2013, the government of Myanmar entered into an agreement with a Japanese consortium to develop the Silawa Special economic Zone (SEZ). Located approximately 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Yangon (Rangoon). Approximately 4500 people were displaced by the project. While the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a partner in the development, has argued that impacted villagers were provided land as compensation for being displaced, the impacted villagers have complained about the new, largely uninhabitable land. Satellite imagery of the area taken in 2012 and again in April of 2015, reveal profound changes to the physical environment that reveal the impact of the development project.

Thilawa SEZ 2012: Courtesy of Google Earth

Thilawa SEZ 2012: Courtesy of Google Earth



Thilawa SEZ April 2015: Courtesy Google Earch

However, interpreting this data provides a more nuanced understanding of the human rights impacts arising out of this project. When people living in the path of this project were relocated, their new land was found to be unsuitable for human habitation due to marshy conditions. By analyzing the geospatial imagery of the area, human rights assessors could identify specific impacts on the economic and social rights (right to adequate housing, right to food) as revealed by the destruction of farmland and the presence of water in marshy areas surrounding the project.

Combined with GPS tagged data collected in the community (location of homes and people, and agricultural land, water sources, and access routes), GIS data can inform a clearer analysis of human rights impacts in and around business activity. Markers inserted as layers on the GIS map that include links to photographs taken at specific locations on and near the affected site and field notes gathered can provide human rights assessors with a deeper understanding of the scope of the problems facing impacted people.

Geographic information systems are an invaluable tool for understanding the human rights implications of business activity. With the technology readily available, its use will inform a better understanding of the range of human rights concerns facing communities and aid human rights experts in their work.