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Drones for Human Rights

| January 17, 2013
Drones for Human Rights

U.S. Army

Recent years have seen a growing interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones,” as policymakers, activists, and commentators seek to define the roles this new technology should play. The discussion so far has tended to focus on the military and intelligence applications of UAV technology, which have come to dominate headlines in light of the expansive and controversial U.S. “drone war” targeting terrorists in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. However, like many tools, UAVs have potential not only to harm but also to help, depending on how they are employed.

Fortunately, more and more people are seeing the opportunity to use UAVs positively, as former U.S. ambassador Jack Chow recently outlined in “The Case for Humanitarian Drones,” a piece he wrote for Drone Week. Current efforts range from OpenRelief, an open-source design project focused on disaster response UAVs, to rainforest conservation monitoring and the protection of endangered species from poachers. One area that remains to be explored in depth is how human rights activists may adopt and adapt UAVs. As surprising as it may sound, UAVs could have just as much potential to defend human rights as to violate them. My own organization, the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, is now starting to explore this option.

Certainly, the concept of UAVs for human rights comes with a host of risks and challenges, as does the concept of using them for humanitarian work in general, which the authors of the “The Case Against Humanitarian Drones,” a Drone Week response piece, thoroughly explain. However, many of the criticisms presented focus on financial, logistical, or legal issues, which should be regarded more as challenges for innovators to overcome than as absolute obstacles to progress. Of course, UAVs are not appropriate for solving every problem in every situation – no tool is. However, this technology is now a part of the landscape, and it offers a variety of new capabilities to human rights defenders, so we would be remiss not to use it in appropriate situations, especially as costs decrease and the technology generally becomes more accessible to activists and NGOs.


How Humanitarian Drones Could Be Used

How UAVs could potentially be used in eight different situations of  concern identified by the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention.

Technology has always had a place in the human rights toolbox, whether embodied by the fax machines, tape recorders, and clandestine radio stations of decades ago or the mobile phones and social media of today, which have proven so useful to activists during events such as the Arab Spring. Generally, these tools are used to complement more conventional methods through either the documentation of abuses or communication for the purpose of mobilizing activists and communities. Some organizations have even begun to use satellite imagery for similar purposes. UAVs can fulfill these same roles in situations where phones and computers may not be enough – or may not even be available. Furthermore, UAVs have unique capabilities that go well beyond what land-based technologies can do.

This is not an entirely new idea. In early 2012, The New York Times published an opinion piece called “Drones for Human Rights” in which Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis propose leasing commercially available UAVs for human rights monitoring in places like Syria. In fact, the idea to deploy a UAV in Darfur was one of the original factors behind Hanis co-founding the Genocide Intervention Network (now merged with several other organizations to form United to End Genocide). Sniderman and Hanis argue that commercially built drones are becoming increasing affordable for non-military users. This is true compared to past years, but the price tag of tens of thousands of dollars still puts them beyond the reach of most activists, NGOs, and threatened communities. Another pillar of their argument is that using UAVs in this way would have a deterrent effect since the perpetrators of atrocities would know they are being watched and so be dissuaded from committing abuses. There may be some validity to this, but history has repeatedly shown that observers “bearing witness” are rarely enough to prevent atrocities. We need to think creatively and go beyond simply leasing UAVs to record images of atrocities and other human rights abuses as they happen.

In response to the point about cost, rather than leasing high-grade UAVs, the greatest potential actually lies in designing purpose-built, low-cost, compact, and rugged UAVs with an emphasis on ease-of-use for the operator. With a burgeoning community of hobbyists such as DIY Drones building low-cost UAVs for recreational and small-scale commercial purposes, there is an abundance of innovative talent to be tapped. What they can build would certainly not be of military grade, but it would be sufficient for human rights purposes. In fact, a few people in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe have already used such devices to record police responses to protests from a bird’s-eye view.

As for the proposed deterrent value of UAVs, this is debatable, but that is not a problem since there are so many other potential use cases for such devices. These include the documentation of evidence to identify and bring perpetrators to justice, the penetration of otherwise inaccessible areas, the establishment of communication links to areas lacking phone and internet connectivity, and, perhaps most excitingly, the establishment of local-level early warning systems to help communities under threat of attack protect themselves. UAVs can also take a variety of forms appropriate to different situations and limited only by the creativity of their designers. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Multirotors – Small helicopter-like aircraft that can hover over an area and record events as they unfold while being agile enough to manoeuvre in urban environments. Imagine, for example, if activists in Tahrir Square had been able to show the world the full picture of police and military crackdowns rather than relying mostly on shaky cellphone camera footage.
  • Fixed-wing – Essentially small airplanes, these have the ability to spend much more time in the air and have longer ranges than multirotors, which gives them the potential to penetrate inaccessible areas and maintain a longer view of a target area, though they cannot hover. An example use case would be patrolling an area surrounding a village or displaced persons camp to warn of approaching militias, thus giving communities more time to react and evacuate. At the same time, perpetrators may be identified by distinctive traits caught on film, opening them up to later legal proceedings.
  • Lighter-than-air – Dirigibles (essentially small blimps) are slow moving but compensate with the ability to spend potentially very long periods of time in the air at high altitudes, which makes them ideal for establishing communication links with inaccessible areas. Imagine, for example, using them to provide a voice or data link to the border regions of Burma, where various ethnic groups are regularly attacked by the military but lack mobile phone or internet connectivity. This would greatly enhance human monitoring and perhaps early warning efforts in such areas.

Naturally, there is no shortage of both technical and legal challenges here, including those related to potential violations of national sovereignty when operating in non-permissive environments, and the management of risk to the operators of humanitarian UAVs. Nonetheless, the enhanced capabilities that this technology offers to human rights defenders are simply too valuable to be dismissed out of hand. What we need now is creativity and determination to overcome the challenges and employ these new technologies with a combination of enthusiasm and cautious wisdom.