Can Drones Help Prevent Human Rights Abuses?

Drones are now commonly used for targeted strikes against terrorists and insurgents—sometimes with collateral damage. Earlier this year, two hostages were accidentally killed in a drone strike by the United States against al-Qaeda militants. Regardless of country size, a Pew Research Center survey shows that the majority of the public opposes armed drone operations due to the perceived risk of civilian casualties. Although armed drones may have a bad reputation, David Whetham, a researcher in the field of military ethics, suggests that unarmed surveillance drones can be useful for protecting civilians. In a new paper, Whetham argues that unarmed surveillance drones can be effective tools in preventing mass violations of human rights in areas where third party eyewitnesses are rare.

Surveillance drones would prevent human rights violations by acting as outside observers in situations where it is dangerous or costly for human monitors to be present. First, the presence of drones can deter risk-averse violators from committing malicious acts due to a fear of being caught. And, indeed, previous research suggests that crimes often occur when perpetrators think they will not be held accountable for their wrongdoings. Second, even if the presence of drones fails to deter human right abuses, the information gathered by drones can make it easier to identify and prosecute perpetrators.

There are also potential cost savings to increasing the use of drones in peacekeeping missions, especially in light of the fact that Western countries have been unwilling to contribute many human troops to these missions. The Democratic Republic of the Congo represents one example of how the United Nations in particular is considering further expansion of drones to save costs, and, potentially, lives. Rebel groups in Congo have been raping and killing innocent civilians in remote areas of the country for 20 years. In 2013, the UN deployed five surveillance drones in Congo to help locate the rebels.

Although no quantitative data is available for the relative success or performance of the drones in terms of the number of crimes deterred, senior officials in the UN give positive reviews for their value and the increased situational awareness they provide. The total cost to maintain a peacekeeping mission in Congo with human personnel is $1.4 billion per year. In comparison, the cost of the five drones is only $15 million per year. Since drones have only been deployed recently, more data are needed to determine how much costs would be reduced.

Aside from the economic benefits, the political cost of using drones is also lower than that of traditional peacekeeping missions. Governments can be reluctant to send troops on peacekeeping missions for fear of political backlash from the potential loss of human life. In contrast, politicians will likely not face intense political backlash if a drone is shot down. This may encourage more governments to contribute to peacekeeping missions.

The expanded use of surveillance drones does have potential drawbacks. In particular, since they have been deployed only recently, surveillance drone usage raises issues of sovereignty. It is unclear whether or not sending drones into the airspace of a state without its consent is a violation of international law. Whetham, however, believes that a government accused of human rights violations should be willing to allow drones to operate in its country because doing so is a chance for that state to prove that it has not taken any unjustified actions. If a country refuses, an authorization from the UN Security Council could provide legal permission for drone use.

Drones may not be a perfect substitute for human troops, as they cannot intervene in human rights abuses or analyze the data they collect. However, the complementary use of drones, along with reduced levels of human troops, represents a promising method for increasing the cost effectiveness of peacekeeping missions.

Article Source: Whetham, David. “Drones to Protect.”  International Journal of Human Rights 19(2), 2015.

Featured Photo: cc/(Andrew Xu)

songkhun@uchicago.edu'
Songkhun Nillasithanukroh
Songkhun is a staff writer for Science & Technology. He is interested in international security and international development.

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