Yale lab in hunt for evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

Hundreds of miles above the Earth, commercial satellites, some the size of a hotel-room refrigerator, others of a school bus, provide Professor Nathaniel Raymond and other researchers at Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) with satellite imagery and radar scans that are used to identify probable sites of war crimes in Ukraine.

For Raymond, who directs the HRL and teaches in the department of epidemiology of microbial diseases and in the university’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, this work is an extension of what he oversaw from 2010 to 2012 as director of operations for the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) founded by actor George Clooney.

Using high-resolution satellite imagery, the SSP detected and documented war crimes against civilians in both Sudan and South Sudan. The SSP was housed within the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which was part of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology, both of which were founded by Raymond, who directed them from 2012 to 2018.

The HRL is part of the Conflict Observatory. Raymond says: “The Conflict Observatory is a consortium of civil society organisations that work with Esri, a geospatial data company that is responsible for the most commonly used map platform, ArcGIS. Funding comes from the [United States] State Department and Yale University as well as other partners including the Smithsonian Institution and Landscape AI.

“The combination of the commercial satellite imagery with open-source data allows us to identify evidence of alleged war crimes in Ukraine by Russia or its proxies.”

Remarkably specific information

The information can be remarkably specific. The Cold War assumption Americans made, that US spy satellites deployed to give warning of the launch of nuclear tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles could sense when a match was lit in Moscow, was, in fact, an urban legend. Today, however, the Landsat satellites do record thermal anomalies like lit matches, albeit large ones.

The imagery can be even more detailed than the photos of the 40-mile-long Russian military convoy that stalled short of its destination – Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv – that were splashed across the internet and the front pages of newspapers in March.

From its orbit 453 miles (700 km) above the Earth, a “Maxar satellite is able to read a baseball diamond very easily. You can see the mound. You might not be able to see the rubber on the mound,” Raymond says. The pitcher’s back foot must be touching the rubber rectangle imbedded in the mound when the ball is released. “But, you’d be able to see something of the slope of the mound”, which, at its height, is 10 inches above the infield grass.

Height can also be determined by satellite mounted radar. Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images, for example, are created by combining radar pulses directed towards an area or object. The minute time differences between a pulse that bounces off the ground and another that is reflected off, say, the roof of a two-storey building, allows the researchers to determine the height of the structure. (SAR images are found on many Wikipedia entries.)

SAR allows researchers to see the elevation of a building and, if it has changed, document that change, which, presumably, was caused by a military action such as shelling or a missile strike.

Both images and SAR are used to identify disturbed earth, which may indicate the site of mass graves.

Multiple phenomenon

The average time to collect and sort through the huge amount of data and produce a preliminary report is between 24 and 36 hours.

“We look for multiple phenomena,” Raymond explains. “The most commonly cited are historic buildings (ie, those that are there), but we also look for specific military vehicles. And we do what’s called ‘typing’: we measure them to figure out what they are”, which helps indicate what is occurring there.

Additionally, researchers use other open-source information from social media platforms such as Telegram, the instant messaging app favoured by Russians.

The time lag doesn’t affect the Conflict Observatory’s mission because it does not produce the kind of real time intelligence that has allowed Ukrainian operators of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to strike up to 50 miles behind Russian lines, blowing up, for example, ammunition dumps.

Rather, the Conflict Observatory looks for large-scale phenomenon such as the 21 “filtration sites” that Albania’s Ambassador to the United Nations Ferit Hoxha told the UN Security Council on 9 September had, as at the end of June, processed as many as 1.5 million Ukrainians before sending them off to cities and camps in Russia. Hoxha did not have to mention either the Soviet Gulag or the chain of prison camps in Siberia in Tsarist times when he added that such filtration camps “are rooted in Russian Federation history”.

The report released on 18 August by the US State Department, Yale and the Conflict Observatory identified the 21 sites in the Donetsk region that were deemed part of Russia’s filtration system.

“In this case, satellite imagery was secondary. The primary source was information analysis from Telegram. We used imagery to identify the locations where we had other image resource information. We would then cross corroborate, looking for cars and buses. We did photometric analysis that compared open-source photos and satellite imagery,” says Raymond.

The Conflict Observatory’s analysis was able to identify four different filtration units: registration, holding, secondary interrogation and detention. Additionally, at the Volnovakha Correctional Colony No 120, about 15 km south-west of Donetsk (city), it identified disturbed earth that was “consistent with potential graves”, says the Conflict Observatory’s website.

In one area of Correctional Colony No 120, disturbed earth, which looked like trenches, was dated to 27 July. On 30 July, the day after the explosion in a building killed 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war (the survivors of the Azov unit that had defended the Avostal steel works in Mariupol), the Conflict Observatory’s imagery showed that the disturbances “look more individuated in appearance”.

The Conflict Observatory’s analysts adhere scrupulously to the evidence. It hardly strains credulity, however, to realise that the lines of “disturbed earth” that is “individuated” – divided into sections – are, in fact, mass graves.

Evidentiary rules

Central to the Conflict Observatory’s credibility is its adherence to the evidentiary rule known as “chain of custody”. In an investigation of a police shooting, Raymond explains, evidence must be handled in a specific way. “There’s specific documentation on how the bullet was recovered, how the bullet was bagged, how the bullet was analysed and where the bullet was.”

Since the intent is to provide evidence that can later be used in courts, either in Ukraine or the International Criminal Court at The Hague, the Conflict Observatory can use only open-source information that can be combined to produce evidence that has an acceptable chain of custody.

“When evidence is admitted into a court of law, it must be treated with what’s called a ‘chain of custody,’ meaning that each piece needs to be able to be independently verified and reviewed or reproduced. And there has to be version control about who produced what.”

When I asked Raymond to address the question of the ethics of professors at Yale working on a project funded by the United States government, he said that while funded by the State Department, the Conflict Observatory’s analysts have complete academic freedom to come to their own conclusions.

“I think it’s very clear that this isn’t defence work. It’s not intelligence. It is accountability work, support for international and Ukrainian domestic law enforcement on alleged war crimes.

“We are experienced war crimes investigators who act with impartiality and neutrality in terms of how we collect information and who we collect it about. The work we do reflects only one question: Is international humanitarian and human rights law being violated? If so, if the evidence suggests that, that’s the rule.”