Drones in the Name of Civilian Protection

From surveillance tool to weapon of war, drones have quickly captured the attention of the world. Most notably used by the U.S. military in Pakistan as a part of the “War on Terror”, many have come to only see the violent side of this technology. In some circles, the word drone has become synonymous with civilian casualties. With the number of civilian deaths, it is hard to argue against this view. However, drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as some would prefer to call them) serve many purposes beyond the “War on Terror”. One potential purpose is their use in the context of civilian protection. The international community has long struggled to successfully protect civilians in harms way, even with the establishment of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The struggle to move from theory to practice continues, and human rights advocates are looking for new tools. For some, drones have enormous potential.

On the surface, there are many reasons the notion of drones for civilian protection seems ideal. As the co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network discussed in their New York Times piece last year, “It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.” Over the last decade there has been a surge in the use of new technologies to document human rights abuses. From the Satellite Sentinel Project, tracking the atrocities in Sudan (which are horrifically ongoing), to the LRA Crisis Tracker, following the crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the DRC. The use of new technologies has nearly eliminated the world’s ability to honestly say we didn’t know atrocities were occurring. Even North Korea is not immune, with Google Maps now allowing the world to view the gulags spread across the country. Shockingly, some have even begun to leave reviews of the gulags (Onion-esque to be sure).

To this extent, the use of surveillance drones would prove invaluable to those focused on civilian protection and atrocity prevention. However, their usefulness does not end there. The Responsibility to Protect, which stands as the primary principle of civilian protection, has struggled since its inception to move states to commit beyond simply verbal support. At the center of its struggles are of course arguments over sovereignty and intervention. Yet, there are times when the Security Council and the P5 are able to move past these issues and agree that something must be done. It is at this point they face an even bigger dilemma, which is who will be sending troops. There are simply never enough troops, nor enough political will to become physically involved in an intervention. In this case, it is incredibly tempting to think how drones could change things.

Take for example, the case of the genocide in Rwanda. The UN mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established in October of 1993. As the world had just seen massive failures in Somalia, it was difficult push for troop commitments from UN member states. What this meant was that a situation which required a large troop presence in order to be successful was sent with only 2,500 troops. As the violence escalated, that number decreased even further. When the full-scale genocide broke out, and with violence directed at the peacekeepers themselves, the mission had no chance. One wonders what the commitment level would have been from member states, the U.S. specifically, if they had the option of sending in drones to assist instead of troops. Would they have acquiesced? Could this horrific genocide have been avoided with the use of a few drones? Perhaps if General Roméo Dallaire had been able to show footage of rebel movements via surveillance drones, the UN might have heeded his warnings about the looming violence.

Sudan is another place where R2P has been enacted, but atrocity prevention has proved difficult. President Omar al Bashir is known for using the Antonov bombers he acquired from Russia to bomb villages, killing countless civilians. From Darfur to the Nuba mountains, their effect has been devastating. This is in addition to the Janjaweed (Devil’s on Horseback) and other non-government troops he sends to do his bidding. Were drones introduced to monitor abuses or track the bombers, this could shift Bashir’s strategy and eliminate fears of those he’s targeting through aerial attacks. That a no-fly zone has not already been enacted in Sudan is a travesty in and of itself. Surveillance drones could work as a small step toward the United Nations moving for real protection of Sudanese civilians. Even further, weaponized drones could prove useful in eliminating Bashir's collection of bombers.

To put it simply, drones could be and have already proven to be an effective tool in the fight to protect innocent civilians. Their ability to document atrocities and help fight them make them a very desirable technology. With that said, the use of drones in the name of human rights still gives me pause. There is the sense that unleashing this technology in the name of human rights is contrary to the core ideology of human rights. In a sense, drones have the potential to take the humanity out of human security. Particularly when weaponized drones are at the center of the discussion, I begin to wonder what would stop the world from simply using drones to assassinate war criminals? While there are those who would consider this an acceptable option, it arguably leads to serious moral questions. Not to mention the nightmare if it became an international norm.

Ultimately, the danger here is not in the drones themselves but in embracing them too quickly and without established understandings and protocols. As the international community has established protocals through the United Nations on matters of human rights and international law, the same must be done here. There need to be safety nets in place which ensure not only the safety of civilians but also that we do not fall into the dangerous belief that drones can replace true intervention. They must remain simply one of our tools, and not our entire strategy. If this is done carefully and intentionally, drones could in fact prove to be one of the most useful tools in the fight to protect civilians.

Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse

Corrie is The Mantle's Managing Editor. You can email her at corrie [at] themantle.net.

Formerly The Mantle's International Affairs Editor, Corrie specializes in matters of civilian protection and human security - specifically the Responsibility to Protect - her writing tackles the complicated intersection of politics and humanity.

Follow her on Twitter @corrie_hulse