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SAR analysis of vessel presence in the Central Mediterranean

By:Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani (Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London); Situ Studio, New York; Lawrence Fox III, Humboldt State University Emeritus Professor of Remote Sensing & consultant, (GISCorps volunteer)

Forensic Oceanography (FO) is a project led by Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani and Situ Studio as part of the European Research Council project “Forensic Architecture” directed by Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London ( Drawing upon a diverse range of geospatial and remote sensing technology, the project investigates the conditions that have led to the death of more than 1500 persons fleeing Libya across the Central Mediterranean in the Spring of 2011, while the area was populated by a high number of military vessels. The project’s first product is a report on a particular case of migrants’ death involving 63 people with strong indications of violation of the obligation to provide assistance to seafarers in distress by several actors, including the military taking part in the operations in Libya (The full report is available on Forensic Oceanography’s webpage: The report was the basis for a legal case against France and may be used to file cases against other countries that participated in the 2011 military intervention in Libya.

Chain of events of the “Left-to-die boat”

Our inquiry into the “left-to-die boat” case mobilized multiple sources of data so as to document with precision the events that led to the migrants’ deaths. In particular the project attempted to spatialize the timeline of events in an attempt to determine the degree of involvement and responsibility of different actors. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery analysis was a key element in this endeavour in that it allowed us to construct a picture of the presence of ships – civilian and military – at the time and in the area of events. While working on the report, FO reached out to GISCorps for the network’s expertise. GISCorps recruited Lawrence Fox III, Humboldt State University Emeritus Professor of Remote Sensing and consultant to provide SAR imagery analysis. The use of SAR imagery in the field of human rights is relatively new territory.

While the resolution of the imagery we accessed was too low to allow for the identification of the provenance of the many boats in view, it was sufficient to identify with precision returns as ships operating in the vicinity of the migrants vessel, and thus constituted a powerful tool to raise the question: whose ships are these? The SAR imagery and analysis contributed to pressure Nations involved in NATO’s maritime embargo to answer this question.

Further details are included in the Complete Report.

While the report is only beginning its public life – it will next be examined by French judges and may be the basis for further legal action against other states – we can consider at this stage already that it was well received and had a measurable impact in terms of forcing the military of several states to position themselves regarding the case. The ultimate effect we hope to contribute to is bringing justice to the survivors of this case and more broadly bringing attention and accountability to the deaths of migrants at sea. The analysis provided by Lawrence Fox III and enabled by GISCorps was essential and we are deeply indebted for it. We hope to have the opportunity to collaborate again in the near future.

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