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[liberationtech] Drones for Human Rights

Chip Pitts chip.pitts at
Thu Feb 2 17:26:28 PST 2012

A group at Singularity University here in Silicon Valley this past summer
launched a start-up that uses drones for humanitarian applications, such as
to deliver medical supplies in developing countries lacking roads:

Chip Pitts

-----Original Message-----
From: liberationtech-bounces at
[mailto:liberationtech-bounces at] On Behalf Of Yosem
Sent: Thursday, February 02, 2012 6:21 PM
To: Liberation Technologies
Subject: [liberationtech] Drones for Human Rights

A group of Stanford students pitched this idea for a startup 8 years ago!
 And yet no one is doing it yet?



January 30, 2012

Drones for Human Rights


DRONES are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State
Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It's time we
used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.

With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses,
and we could start with Syria.

The need there is even more urgent now, because the Arab League's observers
suspended operations last week.

They fled the very violence they were trying to monitor. Drones could
replace them, and could even go to some places the observers, who were
escorted and restricted by the government, could not see. This we know: the
Syrian government isn't just fighting rebels, as it claims; it is shooting
unarmed protesters, and has been doing so for months. Despite a ban on news
media, much of the violence is being caught on camera by ubiquitous
cellphones. The footage is shaky and the images grainy, but still they make
us YouTube witnesses.

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.

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.

We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and
scope. The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the
likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be.

This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate
Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It
isn't the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is
very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have
an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized
internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in
large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this.
Why not get drones to assist the good work?

It may be illegal in the Syrian government's eyes, but supporting Nelson
Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly
over Syria's territory may violate official norms of international
relations, but governments do this when they support opposition groups with
weapons, money or intelligence, as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In
any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence
of the Syrian state's brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders.

There are some obvious risks and downsides to the drone approach. The Syrian
government would undoubtedly seize the opportunity to blame a foreign
conspiracy for its troubles. Local operators of the drones could be at risk,
though a higher-end drone could be controlled from a remote location or a
neighboring country.

Such considerations figured in conversations we have had with human rights
organizations that considered hiring drones in Syria, but opted in the end
for supplying protesters with phones, satellite modems and safe houses. For
nearly a year now, brave amateurs with their tiny cameras arguably have been
doing the trick in Syria. In those circumstances, the value that a drone
could add might not be worth the investment and risks.

Even if humanitarian drones are not used in Syria, they should assume their
place in the arsenal of human rights advocates. It is a precedent worth
setting, especially in situations where evidence of large-scale human rights
violations is hard to come by.

Drones can reach places and see things cell phones cannot. Social media did
not document the worst of the genocide in the remote villages of Darfur in
2003 and 2004. Camera-toting protesters could not enter the fields where
8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. Graphic and
detailed evidence of crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just
response, but it helps.

If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.

*Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis are co-founders of the Genocide
Intervention Network.* _______________________________________________
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