Drones Without Borders

It seems every foreign policy problem increasingly looks like an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Libertarian Somali pirates? Drones! Uppity dictator on the Mediterranean? Drones! Wedding party you weren’t invited to? Drones!

Human rights abuses and mass atrocities in Syria? Drones! Yes, George Clooney’s idea to prevent and monitor human rights abuses and mass atrocities via satellite has come back down to earth. Unfortunately, instead of crashing and burning like SkyLab, it’s hanging out around 5,000 feet like SkyNET.

In today’s New York Times, Mark Hanis* and Andrew Stobo Sniderman of the (former) Genocide Intervention Network suggest non-governmental organizations use drones to monitor human rights and support accountability measures.

As Daniel Solomon notes at Securing Rights, non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Crisis Group have been monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses for years based on human intelligence networks. You know, giving a voice to witnesses and victims.

Instead, Hanis and Sniderman envision a brave new world of human rights monitoring, one without an Oxford comma:

“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.”

The evidence would not be so crystal clear. A small drone within an NGO’s price range, like, say, a small Raven UAV, could spot tanks and other objects, but isn’t going to capture the identities of perpetrators. It may even have a difficult time identifying who the perpetrators are. In a tragic incident last April, a corpsman and a Marine in Afghanistan were misidentified as hostile Taliban fighters even via Predator’s video feed. Minutes later, the same Predator released a Hellfire missile and killed them instantly.

The cost of using drones simply isn’t worth the benefit. In Syria, Hanis and Sniderman admit using drones “would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. … It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era.”

Drones, of course, 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. Instead, drones would violate Syrian sovereignty and cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response. As @drunkepredator notes:

Too many Syrian SAMs flying around? More drones! Hooray escalation!

Hanis and Sniderman argue that Syria has forfeited its sovereignty by brutally attacking its people–and they’re not the only ones. It would set an unfortunate precedent, though, that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law and could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult.

And the benefits of drones are oversold. To wit:

“Drones can reach places and see things cell phones cannot. Social media did not document the worst of the genocide in the remote villages of Darfur in 2003 and 2004.”

In fact, 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. I could attach one to a weather balloon and boom, mini-drone. Besides, there aren’t Drunken Nokias on Twitter.

The view from a small drone from the same manufacturer of the Raven UAV. Totally easy to spot gun barrels, right?

To say “social media” didn’t capture what was happening in Darfur is accurate. None of us were on Twitter then. But in 2004, Marine Captain Brian Steidle took hundreds of photos in Darfur of the human and physical destruction there. By 2006 he had a book deal and a documentary film in the works. Would a video feed from a drone be more powerful and move more people to act than that of an internally displaced child scarred by shrapnel and the sun?

That is Hanis and Sniderman’s hope:

“We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope. The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be.”

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. It remains unlikely that a grainy overhead shot of a demonstration will do more to end the abuses of the Syrian regime or the veto of Russia at the UN Security Council than images of children brutally murdered.

Drones are not the only tool we have on hand to end mass atrocities, as either activists or policymakers. They seem like the easy answer. But the uncomfortable truth is there are no easy solutions to ending mass atrocities, not in Syria or Darfur.

*Full disclosure: I was Mark’s intern in 2006 for a few brief months. PowerPoint was involved. I still haven’t forgiven him.

About Laurenist

Lauren Jenkins has experience in post-conflict peacebuilding, international development, and human rights advocacy. She Tweets unseriously about serious topics as @laurenist and blogs around the more liberal internationalist parts of the internet. You should give her a job.
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