Drones for Human Rights

A few weeks ago we discussed the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for social good, and presented ways in which drones could contribute to genocide prevention. But while there is great humanitarian potential for drones, several challenges lie ahead. Chief among these is a lack of safeguards that restrict their use, completely or in part, to humanitarian purposes.

Governments are usually very good at dressing their repressive tactics in the language of benevolent paternalism, and all too often the media adopt that frame, or at best juxtapose it as an equally valid frame to the counter-view held by human rights activists.  As long as drone technology remains in the exclusive control of governments, drones are prone to abuse, mischaracterization, and window dressing or subterfuge  to cover their true purposes, which remain surveillance, control, intimidation, and killing.

These government uses of drones have created another challenge for the humanitarian use of drones — what has become known as the “drone stigma.” With such a strong association of drones with negative applications, many civilians do not trust them at all, even for good applications.  India offers an example, where civil society activists are not at all convinced that anti-poaching drones aren’t also being developed for other, less benevolent purposes. This stigma is also seen in Yemen, where people are more fearful of drones, due to their ability to strike silently without warning, than of on-the-ground human terrorists and attackers.

Safety also poses a very real concern for the use of drones for any purpose.  Drones embody a sophisticated technology that even at the high-cost end can malfunction at times.  Crashed drones imperil both human life and property.

In response to the statement made in the last blog that if drones are used to protect endangered animals, why not use them to protect endangered people, the question could be asked, “Aren’t those vulnerable people typically made vulnerable by the very same people who would deploy the drones?”

The Sentinel Project does not advocate the expanded use of UAVs in humanitarian situations by governments (though we’re not opposed to that in principle either, assuming that proper safeguards are in place against abuses). In terms of the endangered animals versus endangered humans analogy, we assume that the UAVs would be deployed by some preferably non-governmental third party in an attempt to counter a likely governmental threat, not by the same people causing the harm in the first place.

So the big question is, who exactly is deploying drones? After all, if people assume that the violation of a state’s sovereignty by another state is a bad thing, is it not just as bad when NGOs do it? Who decides when violating laws and norms is morally justified and when it isn’t?

The drone debate centres around the control of state-of-the-art drones – those with major reach and the ability to send pictures instantaneously even if they’re out of visual range. Currently, these drones can be fielded only by governments with access to sophisticated technology, like encrypted GPS. This being the case, if a foreign power deploys drones in someone else’s sovereign territory, we’re looking at an erosion of long-standing norms of international law.

Another challenge in using drones for humanitarian purposes, particularly to acquire images of repressive activities that are then shown to the public in the hope of raising an outcry, is the potential for disaster fatigue – the phenomenon by which the empathy of people for the victims of tragedy begins to wane when observers become overloaded by relentless news coverage and horrific images. And even without the creep of disaster fatigue, will the international community’s response be any different when it is unequivocally known that genocide is taking place somewhere? Did “we” do something about Rwanda, where we saw what was unfolding in real time? Are “we” doing anything about the many other genocidal and mass atrocities situations around the globe? Unfortunately, greater knowledge about a crisis situation doesn’t necessarily correlate with increased global concern. And, sad to say, interventions often have more to do with geopolitics than they do with a genuine concern for the dignity and well-being of the people under attack.

Another unintended effect of the humanitarian use of surveillance drones to document genocidal campaigns may be to raise expectations in the victimized community that help may be on its way, when in fact it may not be.

As with any other tool, we should be focusing on uses of UAVs that actually influence outcomes. Watching a massacre happen doesn’t stop it, as history has repeatedly shown. However, adding another method of data collection that can strengthen early warning efforts before a massacre begins can significantly improve local attempts to get people out of harm’s way.

Photo: http://opencanada.org/features/the-think-tank/comments/drones-for-human-rights/