The Drones Club

Could drones – currently used by the CIA for targeted assassinations (just don’t call them that, especially as they often seem untargeted) – be used for good? Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis, co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network, seem to think so…

Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

In some ways it is not so very different to what George Clooney is already doing with his Satellite Sentinel Project. And it is not the first time it has been tried with drones. Sam Bell once tried to buy a drone in his hols to fly over Darfur…

The executives offered an old, low-end, limited- range UAV for $5 million. That was still, as Bell puts it, “a bit out of our price range,” but he thought it might be worth splurging–until he and fellow anti-genocide crusader Mark Hanis ran their potential purchase by an expert.

Oh, so Hanis has form. And has already been told once it was bonkers.

Anyway, this time he reckons he has the arguments licked with an interesting mix of good intentions and an appeal to everyone’s favourite freedom fighter…

This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?

Well, here’s one reason. A black and white, name em and shame em approach to human rights isn’t the only show in town. Lots of organisations have taken a different stand to ensure they retain access to people hurt or imprisoned. You might want to check with the Red Cross and see how they feel about this. But if your aim is to escalate a conflict and ensure aid agencies are prevented from entering, then this is exactly the right course to follow. And then what about the legal status of invading a country’s airspace?

It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly over Syria’s territory may violate official norms of international relations, but governments do this when they support opposition groups with weapons, money or intelligence, as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders.

Of course in Libya there was also the small matter of UN resolution. But anyway, what’s the harm when you mean well?

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7 responses to “The Drones Club

  1. Surely, it is not the information the drones obtain but how the information obtained by them is used that determines whether they are confrontational (and unhelpful) or whether the information they reveal is used as a negotiating tool (and helpful)?

    We applaud undercover reporters – why not applaud drones?

  2. Another point relates to the value of the imagery that might be obtained. If you’re going to accept all the risks outlined in the post, you’ll want to see a result. But let’s face it. Photos of crimes don’t stop wars or instantly teleport criminals to the Hague. Activists across Syria and Yemen have documented crimes – the difficult part is to get the offenders to court. Yemen’s activists have evidence of crimes against humanity. Saleh is getting off. Drone surveillance won’t change that.

  3. Agreed. The real issue is political will. Not evidence.

  4. Horses for courses as the British would say.

    A UAV could be a valuable tool in many contexts, for example to document police brutality and massacres and to provide tactical information for protest movements. The concrete effects will depend on how such an asset is used exactly and – like David pointed out – how you employ the information gained.

    I also think that we should not focus on debating IF UAVs will become part of the toolkit of activist groups. This is something we can take for granted. Already, Occupy is experimenting with live-streaming UAVs as the tech becomes cheaper and easier to handle, we will soon see more of these attempts.

    So the interesting question is HOW should they be used. I’m generally a proponent of “if its not violent, its legitimate” and UAVs with cameras definitely fall into the non-violent segment.

    I also think it is unhelpful to play out one style of activism (for example the Red Cross) against another (Active surveillance and documentation of human rights abuses). While both need to be employed with an eye on the context, they are generally complementary rather than opposing. And that the Red Cross approach does not always yield the promised results has just been shown by the situation in Somalia, where the ICRC has been banned by AlShabaab.

  5. Fully agree with Rob here about the huge damage this would have the potential to do to the life-saving work of other organizations where access is critical and scarce. The costs are too high, even if it were a useful tool.

    Further, human rights orgs are not perceived as politically neutral parties. Is it not a danger that such brazen actions would be conflated with western governments, potentially muddying policy, message, and genuine diplomatic efforts to resolve crises?

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