How Drones Help Break the Monopoly of States

How Drones Help Break the Monopoly of States

This op-ed from today’s NYT reinforces a new orientation towards Mass Atrocity Response Operations (the name of a project founded by Sarah Sewall out of the Kennedy School that is enjoying some traction with the Obama Administration).  Drones can be deployed in reconnaissance efforts to detect and document human rights violations.

The twist here: it doesn’t have to be governments doing the reconnoitering.

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.

An environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has reported that it is using drones to monitor illegal Japanese whaling in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere. In the past few years, human-rights groups and the actor and activist George Clooney, among others, have purchased satellite imagery of conflict zones. Drones can see even more clearly, and broadcast in real time.

So that’s a capacity enhancement for NGOs, another way in which information-gathering powers, non-state relative to state, are diminishing.  But why stop there?  Non-state actors could up the ante by weaponizing their drones.  Not far-fetched to imagine Sea Shepherd dropping bombs on whaling boats (and not so easy to stop them).

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Readers might note that future drones might engage in crop dusting, drones are used for law enforcement purposes (e.g., intel and chasing suspects), drones might become as small as a dragonfly, drones could (are they now?) be used for monitoring auto traffic and warning of accidents or slow downs, drones could be used for monitoring bad weather conditions, and so forth.

Mark Kersten

I’m rather wary of their idea when taken to it’s logical conclusion in the context of the ICC: that witness participation and statements would be increasingly irrelevant because photos said everything the Court needed to know. More broadly, I’m wary of the push to remove humans and human experience from highlighting, enforcing and adjudicating international crimes. My thoughts here, for anyone interested:

Stuart Ford

I don’t think photos would replace witness participation.  The problem with witness statements is often that if you get more than 1 witness to an event, their statements will be inconsistent in ways both big and small, particularly if the event was traumatic and/or took place long ago.  I have had this experience dealing with witness statements that relate to the activities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.  Photographs could help ground the (inconsistent) statements of multiple witnesses.  In that sense, I think they would probably improve the quality of judgments at international criminal courts, and help combat criticisms that because the witnesses disagree about things they must be lying and/or unreliable.  But I don’t think that photographs on their own can replace witness statements.  Somebody needs to interpret what the photos are showing.  I think that will continue to be eyewitnesses supplemented by experts.

Mark Kersten

Thanks for the response Stuart. I don’t disagree with you and indeed, I hope you’re right. As I stated in the post, I don’t think it’s a problem to use photographic evidence in combination with other types of evidence. However, I am worried about the possible trend of removing the human – and his/her experience – from the process of establishing evidence. I agree – photos are unlikely to fully replace witness participation but surely they are likely to make witness participation less necessary, especially in the context of active conflict. Also, there seems to be something fundamentally good – even if difficult for those involved – of having to get enough witness statements that the facts in them can be thoroughly cross-verified to assure greatest accuracy. I suppose that I’m just not entirely convinced that an increase in drone surveillance of human rights violations – as outlined in the NYT article – wouldn’t encroach on the privileged role of human experience (through witness/survivor/victim accounts) in international criminal justice.


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