Should NGOs Use Drones to Monitor Human Rights Violations?


Should military-issue surveillance drones be used to observe human rights violations and determine further course of action against non-humanitarian regimes? 

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Andrew Sniderman and Mark Hanis of the Genocide Intervention Network argue they should:

“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. ... Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers. For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria."

The argument for human rights groups to purchase surveillance drones to monitor violence against Syrian and other global citizens is strong. The drones already exist, and their use would not directly put lives in further jeopardy. They are efficient and effective, and no longer as expensive as they once were. A drone, at several hundred thousand dollars, could likely fit into an annual budget for a large human rights non-profit. The drones could provide expository information at relatively little cost or risk to the operator.

Despite my gut inclination towards non-interventionism, even I have a hard time disagreeing with this argument. While this kind of human rights monitoring would violate Syrian air space, so too would a human-rights-motivated military intervention as we saw in Libya last year.

This argument, however, rests on two critical and questionable assumptions: (1) That the UN or ICC would be effective in prosecuting the human rights violations that the drones discovered; and (2) That there is a benefit of global awareness of such violations. 

“The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be,” they write. But while an outraged world is one thing, can awareness actually help prevent, deter, or stop human rights abuses from occurring? Would belligerent regimes be less likely to engage in such behavior solely if they knew Big Brother and the world were watching, without the ability or intent to enact retribution?

Further, if the stated goal of using the drones is to prosecute human rights violators in front of the ICC, we are dependent on the legitimacy and power of the organization. While symbolically effective and certainly the best current option for prosecuting war criminals, it would be much more effective to monitor these regimes with the intent of military intervention, rather than diplomatic prosecution, or perhaps both simultaneously. Unfortunately, this then raises the uncomfortable question of the merits of interventionism. 

I tentatively come down in support of human rights monitoring, I am unconvinced of a real, tangible benefit of such evidence-only surveillance operations. Information-gathering is critical as a first step for further action against belligerent regimes, but information for the sake of information offers little, if any, real justice to the victims of the crimes.

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