I watched Mark Hanis last night on RT defend his and Andrew Strobo Sniderman’s op-ed article in the New York Times, which I responded to yesterday. Given the salience of this debate, I thought I’d share a few more thoughts, this time on the misconception that the missing ingredient in human rights advocacy and enforcement is surveillance of human rights abuses.
Hanis and Sniderman start from a premise with which virtually every human rights advocate agrees: there remains a worrying level of inaction in the face of atrocities being committed around the world. Again, no one disagrees. They’ve got the diagnosis right. It’s their prognosis that’s wrong.
History presents a litany of sombre cases of mass atrocities that have been met with shamefully inadequate responses: we know the tragic lack of response to the Rwandan genocide and the deafening silence on the alleged counter-genocide in its wake in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Darfur is consistently decried as a situation where the international community has made a mockery of the mantra, “never again”; seemingly more people are interested in whether it is called Burma or Myanmar than responding to systemic human rights abuses there; the situation in the DRC, where violations of rights pretty much dwarf all other contexts, barely registers in public opinion; this week, international leaders hunkered down for the intense process of diluting their response to the crisis in Syria because they’re unable to do enough, but unwilling to do nothing. The list goes on; it’s not pretty.
But before you go jumping on the “humanitarian drones” bandwagon, here’s the critical question: would any of the above situations have been different if we just had more precise aerial surveillance of violence and human rights abuses? Let’s look at the record.
It is worthwhile remembering that there were aerial photographs, as well as personal testimony of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. Winston Churchill called Auschwitz “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” Despite having seen the evidence and having been implored by various groups to take action, Allied powers did nothing. Both the UK and the US rejected any plan to bomb either the concentration camps or the railway lines that satisfied the camp’s insatiable appetite for human slaughter. Faced with unmistakable aerial surveillance and witness-based evidence, the Allies chose not to bombard the camps. Remarkably, that was during the war, when Allied planes were already bombing other Nazi targets.
In Darfur, a project called ‘Eyes on Darfur‘, sponsored by Amnesty International, uses satellite imagery to map systematic violence in the region. While not of the precision that drones offer, it isn’t clear that this surveillance of human rights abuses has done much of anything to mobilize and instigate effective action in Darfur. Even the Bush administration’s acknowledgement that Darfur constituted a genocide – as controversial as that decision may be – didn’t lead to an effective response to resolve the conflict.
In addition to satellite images, aerial photography also illustrated the violence between South Sudan and Sudan last year, detailing burned down and abandoned villages. Unlike the satellite images in Darfur, the aerial images from Abyei were detailed close-ups and demonstrated with clarity serious instances of indiscriminate violence against civilians. Still, South Sudan and Khartoum appear as close to the brink of war now as they did before.
I could go on, but the point is this: what is holding states back from responding effectively to instances of mass human rights violations is not the lack of precise aerial photography. It isn’t insufficient information or knowledge of atrocities that keeps the international community from taking appropriate action. It is conflicting interests and the lack of political will amongst states that keeps them from taking their obligations as precisely that – obligations. It is also often the complete misunderstanding of the political context in which violent conflict and atrocities occur that leads states to remain unconcerned or take inappropriate action. Indeed, such misunderstandings can be made worse by distilled and decontextualized images – as powerful and evocative as they may be.
As I said in my earlier post, this is not to reject the idea that aerial images – including those produced from drones – can’t complement other forms of evidence and testimony. Aerial photographs are already part of a collage of sources which help the public to mobilize and the international community to respond to widespread human rights abuses. But the idea that “humanitarian drones” could be a panacea to the lack of political will and interest that plagues states from taking action to address atrocities is a misplaced pipe dream.
So before you go writing to your favourite human rights group or the United Nations to request that they spend big parts of their budgets on “drones for human rights”, think long and think hard: are drones really the answer?