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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15 Responses to Drones Without Borders

  1. Pingback: Déjà Cloo’ | @laurenist

  2. Charles says:

    While I’m here, I may as well comment: drunken nokias may not be on twitter, but they are on facebook. Hence my request to a ‘friend’ to remove a certain photo which may have ended up on his phone during a big night in, in Katherine, NT (that’s a place, not a girl). It’s a good thing he doesn’t know that you can post pictures on Twitter…

  3. Steve says:

    This is awesome. Thanks for making smart commentary so witty.

  4. Dan says:

    Hans and Sniderman’s ill-conceived plan is what happens when one watches Enemy of the State, Eagle Eye, and all of the Terminator movies back-to-back. I especially like the “count gun barrels and puddles of blood.” Pure awesomeness.

    So…instead of acknowledging the fact that it’s human networks that are always the more successful and investing in those (I dunno, using simple SMS/GPRS technology for monitoring?), we want…swoopier tech.

    • Michael says:

      More on this soon but first a quick return salvo of snark.

      Phones are great! And mobile too! Next time you’re in Sudan I invite you and Laurenist to drive 80 kilometers across the desert and military lines to a village (let’s say one near Kadugli) without roads and try taking a photo of a Janjaweed soldier torching a market with your phone. Then when you’re tied to a donkey on your way to be interrogated in El Fasher (ghetto fabulous jail I hear) you could try texting out an SMS/GPRS incident report about the attack.

      Huh, no signal?

      But wait, by human networks maybe you’re suggesting it’s better for the villagers themselves to stick around during an attack and try to record violations on their cell phones? Hey HRW, got a great blurry dead body pic for you!

      So yeah, despite the fact that UAVs are here to stay (sorry folks) let’s just forget about any new tech in any and all scenarios that might allow us to remotely record serious abuses in high definition without putting people at risk of direct harm.

      In all seriousness I know snark is fun but I’m not sure I understand the knee-jerk response to this apart from the ‘drones are bad cause militaries have used them for bad stuff’ trope.

  5. Nice overview, thanks for that.

    You know what it reminds me of? How excited people got about the invention of television, and how some people made claims to the effect of “If we had television crews during the Holocaust and it was on the news all over the world, it would’ve been stopped.” That has obviously not materialized; so I guess, like you, I’m fuzzy on how violating international law and norms like “state sovereignty,” in order to get satellite imagery of this kind, would be any different.

  6. G. Calamita (@cypherinfo) says:

    I consider:
    – this article is about Syria;
    – it is about drones a way to be there but from a desk;
    All of today ways to be involved are always from a desk!
    I wonder who is behind that desk?


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  9. Michael says:

    One more point. Since the data gathered by a UAV depends on the altitude of operation and sensor quality, Laurenist is off base to suggest that a drone with a high definition video camera could not identify individuals. Zoom in on her example image. It is actually quite a good example of what is possible- an analyst examining a series of images or video from this drone at this altitude could at a minimum determine whether the individuals were armed with rifles, abusing the people surrounding them, were wearing uniforms, loading people into vehicles, shooting at them. That exact image might have said a lot if it were of a roadblock in Rwanda or the Carrefour neighborhood in Duekoue during the massacre.

  10. Nick says:

    Wow, you’re right, I think I see WMDs in that photo. Or maybe not. But it’s okay because high-altitude video surveillance would never be used to, say, start a war or anything.

    • Michael says:

      Not really sure what you’re talking about Nick. We’re not talking WMDs, but about civilians being butchered (usually already during war) by the hundreds or thousands and developing better tools for getting that information out to the public quickly. Feel free to elaborate on what you mean.

      Intelligence, whether from people, satellites, planes, or independent journalists, can be used to justify anything our leaders want to. In and of itself it has nothing to do with the decision to go to war.

      The question is whether to try to create access to this source of information that governments already for the people, freeing it from the exclusive realm of militaries and intelligence organizations, to try to get better information on atrocities out more quickly.

      If aerial images or whatever type of information was coming out of a country that clearly showed Rwanda 2.0 unfolding, I would hope it would start a war to end it. Yep, I said it, shocking. There are worse things than war.

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  13. Cerys says:

    It’s wonderful that you are getting ideas from this post
    as well as from our dialogue made at this time.

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