Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent […] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law […].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “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?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness'”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

19 responses to “Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

  1. I keep on wondering what would happen – in a long term period of time – if the first world countries use them!

  2. Sorry to disagree, but I haven’t heard anything as naive from you yet.

    As if any regime would lack the ammunition to repress their people. This is hilarious. 😀
    Unfortunately the other arguments aren’t much better. 😦

    Human rights monitoring must not just monitor and document abuses, but this should change the behaviour of the repressor. Right defenders aim to deter future abuses. Political activists will try to let the repressive violence backfire on the repressor, to remove him from power. In both cases, as in the strategy book for nonviolent struggle the core technique is “backfire” (as described by Brian Martin; Gene Sharp talks about political jiu-jitsu). According to Martin (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/backfire.html) oppressors inhibit outrage over unjust violence by trying to:
    1 cover up the incident
    2 devaluate the victim
    3 reinterpretate the violence (as just, necessary, accidental, unavoidable …)
    4 use official channels to give the appearance of justice
    5 intimidate and bribe the people who could react

    Activists (and HR-defenders) therefore need to
    1 expose the action
    2 Validate the target
    3. Emphasise interpretation of the action as an injustice
    4. Mobilise public concern (and avoid formal procedures)
    5. Resist and expose intimidation and bribery

    This said one has to weigh every method in respect of all five aspects. Obviously drones could help to expose the action, but most likely not only in the Syrian case, such drones would devaluate the victims as friends of outside powers and would strengthen the official reinterpretation of the protest as a foreign led and financed rebellion. I the end the henchmen of the regime will be much more motivated to fight the foot-troops of a foreign enemy then without the drones and potential supporters will be distant from the movement.

    The use of drones must also be understood as an act of communication to the repressor, the henchmen and the oppressed. The repressor will see the drones primarily as a weapon of war, as he has no chance to verify that the informations will just be used to document HR-abuses and not to identify possible targets for bombs. In fact the drones-NGO will most likely have no possibility to ensure that the data will not be used in case of warfare. This might deter him from further repression, but in the past many dictators reacted on military pressure the opposite way around. Taken the modern US/NATO warfare strategy to combine superior airpower with local militias, it is more than likely that any dictator will try to clear the ground if he can’t reach the sky.

    The henchmen actually might be deterred from repressive acts in the open air, but on the other hand the obvious reinterpretation of the monitoring drones as outside intervention will likely make it harder to defect and strengthen the cohesion within military units.

    Last but not least we have to take into account that the victims must interpret the presence of drones either as a proof of outsiders just watching and/or as a first step into foreign intervention, which in the current framework has to be understood as military intervention. Thus the foreign drones will further direct hopes and activities from what one can do by oneself, toward the foreign intervenor. This effect was very visible in the former Yugoslavian wars. There the demonstrated readyness of the US to bomb (just a very little – symbolical) warring factions for the Dayton agreement, led to a strategic change within the UCK, who from then on did everything to draw the US/NATO in a war with Serbia. The same is true for Syria today where a nonviolent resistance is becoming more and more violent. Any sign that the West would intervene once a civil war would drain sufficient pain, would be highly irresponsible.

    This said, I dont want to outrule that drones might at some point be useful. Obviously things would be differently if drones were as common as smart phones or if the CIA would ban the use of drone attacks. But as things are in the moment a Human Rights Drone would be brilliant for Assad only.

    • Thanks for your note, from the blog post you just commented on:

      “Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time.”

  3. Sorry but its not just a question of cost-benefit analysis. The whole drone issue totally contradicts any idea of strategic nonviolent struggle. You write: “From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense.” But this is false!

    I understand your fascination of the wasp novel. But the whole idea of distracting resources is military thinking and has no strategic relevance itself for non-violent struggle of movements against governments. Firstly because outside actors have to take into account that their actions may harm the existing local movement. Secondly because non-violent struggle aims to de-legitimate and de-justify the use of violence/force, while a distraction tactic (with drones or other weapons or dual use tools) is likely to legitimate it. Thirdly because the state will always have far more military resources than a non-violent movement and the strategy of non-violence is to choose such “battlefields” in which the use of military power is irrelevant or would backfire on the oppressor.

    I am a novice in the field of crowdsourcing, mapping etc. and I admire your knowledge and expertise in this field, but I know the reality of non-violent movements and of their support from the outside. And in this aspect your thesis is wrong.

  4. Human rights monitoring does not always feed into supporting or not supporting a local ‘movement’. For example in Cote D’Ivoire last year both Gbagbo and Ouattara forces were engaged in atrocities. The latter massacred 800 civilians over the course of several days in Doukoue in the west, the former mainly in Abidjan. Your logic, while definitely valid in certain cases, does not ring true for this scenario where it seems likely that irrefutable evidence that Ouattara’s forces where going house to house killing civilians might have contributed to more outside pressure and different outcomes in terms of rebel actions or UN engagement. In many cases of incipient civil war or direct attacks against the people the nonviolent movement is not a factor. Would we have worried about these effects you mention in Rwanda? No. A government that shells its own urban neighborhoods or engages in other types of mass violence is no longer swayed by nonviolent action.

    I also think it’s dangerous to think in terms of supporting an opposition or movement with this stuff. No one who engages in this should do so in a partisan way, but with complete impartiality, to set a clear record of mass violence by any and all actors on the ground.

  5. You hit a good point with Cote D’Ivoire. Drones could of course become an additional instrument, once the conflicting parties agreed to them, as they had agreed to the UN blue helmet mission in CDI. As it would not have been a problem if the Arab League Monitoring mission in Syria had used them. The problem as you write is how to organize “complete impartiality” or such kind of acceptance that they do no harm to the process…

    I have my doubts about Rwanda, not so much about the legitimacy of the use of drones, but whether more detailed information would have had any effect on the genocide.
    As is the case in Syria today the question is not so much of knowledge, but of how the killing can be stopped. Obviously the human rights monitoring is not swaying the government at all, while the nonviolent action in most cities in Syria is continuing to erode the governmental apparatus…

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