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Drones for Human Rights

The New York Times on Monday published an opinion article entitled “Drones for Human Rights” by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis who are the co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network.

They write that “[d]rones are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan….  It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.”  They acknowledge the legal, political, and practical problems of using surveillance drones to monitor human rights abuses, but using the current situation in Syria as an example, argue that one “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. … If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”

Mark Kersten, writing on his Justice in Conflict blog, acknowledges the potential value of drone surveillance, but is generally critical of the proposal: “[I]n the context of ‘drones for human rights’, the risk is that the human gets removed from the experience and accounting of human rights violations. What would seem to matter is not personal experience but the particular configuration of pixels on a screen. This is folly. The process of victims, survivors and witnesses being involved shouldn’t be exchanged for the ‘unprecedented precision and scope’ of the photographs offered by drone technology. If anything, the role of victims, survivors and witnesses in the process of seeking and delivering justice should be enhanced.”

As the NY Times opinion articles points out, surveillance drones are deployed in a variety of non-military missions, including border control.  The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has deployed surveillance drones on the U.S.-Mexican border for years.  Frontex has been exploring the possible use of surveillance drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV) for some period of time.  In January Frontex organised a 3 day live demonstration of UAVs at Greece’s Aktio Air Base where international manufacturers performed a series of test flights over the west coast of Greece.

Surveillance drones could certainly be used for search and rescue operations at sea and along remote international borders.  Could human rights organisations deploy their own drones in an effort to detect and monitor migrant boats as they embark on a dangerous trip across the Mediterranean?  Presumably this could happen, but practical problems, including the expense and legality of such missions, make such a possibility unlikely anytime soon.   But the use of drones by Frontex or national coastguards is not far off and it will be important to ensure that this new capability is used properly and not only as a border control tool to facilitate push-back operations at sea.

Click here for link to NY Times op-ed.

Click here for link to Justice in Conflict blog post.

Click here and here for links to Frontex research regarding drones.

Click here for Guardian article about the UAV industry’s plan for a “public relations effort to counter the negative image of the controversial aircraft.”

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