Beneficial Drones?

Human rights activists Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Harris argue in the New York Times that surveillance drones can and should be used in defense of human rights. Drones could provide detailed real-time evidence of crimes against humanity, such as Syrian government attacks against civilians or genocidal violence in Sudan. Increased awareness of such crimes could help to save lives, the authors claim. Surveillance drones are reportedly being used by a conservation group to monitor illegal Japanese whaling. Graphic scenes of the killing of whales and dolphins could intensify the public outcry against such abuses.

Should we learn to stop worrying and love the drone? Not exactly. It is important to distinguish between drones as weapons systems and their use for surveillance. The latter purpose could be more justifiable, especially in defense of human rights, but serious questions arise. By what authority would governments or nongovernmental groups have the right to conduct surveillance over the territory of a sovereign state? Sniderman and Harris acknowledge that sending drones to spy on Syria would violate national and international laws. What limitations should be placed on such surveillance? Would those being spied upon have the right to fire upon the drones, perhaps prompting retaliation and leading to a drone-against-drone scenario of robotic war? Would images of wrongdoing provided by drones be admissible in legal proceedings? Should they be used by broadcast media?

These and many other questions about the use of drones demand urgent attention and clarification. As Tom Barry and I have argued, the role of drones should be debated nationally and internationally, and legally binding guidelines and protocols for their use need to be established and enforced.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.